It’s a startling post from The Atlantic; a dismaying one. The authors write on the increasing hypersensitivity of college students, or “The Coddling of the American Mind”: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.”
Minority students, for example, may find it offensive for you to ask where they are born; perhaps you are questioning whether they are true Americans. Students are alert for these and other “microaggressions”–seemingly innocuous words or actions that are “thought as a kind of violence nonetheless.” Professors are expected to issue “trigger warnings” if assigned literature might trigger a memory of past trauma.
The authors offer a number of worthwhile speculations on the “whys” behind this. Parents, manufacturers, and schools are more protective of children’s safety than ever. The message: “Life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.” Anti-discrimination suits also frequently make headlines. Political parties are becoming increasingly polarized, leading to hostility and vast chasms between ideologies, preventing cooperation. Social media makes it easy to express moral “solidarity and outrage.” These phenomena and others, the authors say, have led to a “vindictive protectiveness,” punishing anyone who threatens to violate “safe spaces” from anything that might make them feel uncomfortable.
The authors rightfully declare this trend “disastrous for education—and mental health.” They warn,
Vindictive protectiveness…prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.
They also cite startling statistics on rising levels of anxiety in this age group:
In a 2014 survey…54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them.
It’s disconcerting for me to envision how campuses–traditionally such fertile plots for unearthing different thoughts than our own–could become so void of, well, grace and open dialogue. Imagine an entire university on eggshells!
But I also see how as a culture, we’ve lent our stitches to assembling this monster. Lawsuits and political correctness and insurance (none of them bad in and of themselves) are only a small part of translating “mental anguish” into dollars and cents. Sometimes these translate into choosing judgment over forgiveness, into the “right” to a trouble-free, pain-free existence.
In fact, reading this article brought to mind some of the best parenting advice to date I received. But it seemed a horse of a different crayon to so many of the parenting magazines that piled in my mailbox, replete with their recall notices and suggestions to minimize conflict by allowing your preschooler to choose his breakfast menu. The wise words: Don’t shield your kids from disappointment and suffering.
So much of life is about what doesn’t go our way.
To seek control over people and circumstances does only lead to, well, neuroticism. Instead, we can help our kids learn to grapple with awkward circumstances and people; with pain; with their own weaknesses; with people who think differently, or let us down.
These smaller disappointments they encounter–the friend who we thought could come over but backed out, difficult or delayed children in the playgroup, the subject they’re not great at (see Is It Ever Okay to Tell Him He’s Not Good at Something?), the teacher who doesn’t “get” our child, the coach who yells or only sees our kid as a highly accomplished bench warmer–are training wheels for life: the breakup. The job they stink at. The boss who consistently overlooks them.
Romans 5 puts it this way: we rejoice in our suffering…knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character…
Now, setting our kids in harm’s way or treating them unkindly is rarely good parenting. (Don’t use me as an excuse to rough up your kid!) But allowing them to try and fail, or skin their knees, or know when they’re wrong, or remain in a relatively safe but uncomfortable situation, may be growing our kids.
Let’s face it. It may be even muscling up our sensitive parent selves, right? Watching our kids be uncomfortable affects our own courage, perseverance, and graciousness. But our kids might also discover some creativity, confidence, adventure, and an ability to truly love people…rather than just tolerating them (er, as long as they treat us the way we want).
It just might turn self-focus into long-suffering.
Oddly, I reside in a culture where pain, injustice, and struggle are actually anticipated. This leads to its own set of troubles–but is perhaps a more realistic and occasionally gracious set of expectations.
Over-sensitivity, defensiveness, and a tit-for-tat mentality can have zero real estate in gracious, forgiving, enduring relationships. (Sigh. Remind me of this in my own relationships, okay?)
But hey–if this is bad advice, this is my official legal disclaimer.