As someone who is about to bring a child into this world and will soon come face to face with all of the difficult questions of how to raise a kind, strong, independent human being, I found this book, The Coddling of the American Mind, to be an important lesson in what not to do.
This book is talking mainly about college students and universities – how young people, members of the iGen or Generation Z, believe they need to be “safe” from differing opinions, “safe” from guest speakers on campus, “safe” from offensive language. There is a pervasive trend in our current culture of people not wanting to have to hear diverse viewpoints. Their argument is that they may be “triggered” by someone else’s words or actions.
So the book explores what this means, how we got to this point and why, and what we can do about it.
Essentially, the book is saying that we are raising children and young adults to follow these “three great Untruths” – the opposite of common sense and how we’ve been raised in the past.
The first is basically saying that kids and people are fragile. That if they are not kept safe, then they will surely just die. That if they face hardship, they will be worse off for it. That if they are offended, then their worst experiences or past trauma will be triggered. That if they hear something they don’t agree with, they will be in danger. The Untruth of Fragility – what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
This sounds crazy, because as we all should know, what doesn’t kill you almost always makes you stronger. You lift weights in the gym and it’s hard and it sucks and you might strain your muscles or be put in a risky situation on a treadmill, but after a year of these grueling workouts, you are definitely able to do more than you ever were. When you face adversity, it’s challenging, it sucks, you’re going through the worst days of your life, but you get through it and you are better for it, better able to cope, to problem-solve, or to roll with the punches next time. It’s actually important to have struggles. You learn from them. You build character and become the person you are because of the challenges you’ve faced.
The second basically says that you should always listen to your feelings. That if you feel you’re in danger, then you are. If you feel offended, then what that person said is offensive. If you feel like someone is dangerous, then they are and you shouldn’t listen to them. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning – always trust your feelings.
Again, this sounds crazy, because we all should know that our feelings can be wrong. That’s why people see therapists. We may feel anxiety or depression, but we can be taught how to cope with those feelings and see past them to the real situation. We feel like someone doesn’t like us, but in reality, they just had a bad day and didn’t want to eat lunch with the group. We feel like someone said the wrong thing and said something offensive, but they had no idea that what they said was wrong, they just didn’t understand our culture. We need to be open to the fact that our feelings are not always correct and try to have an open mind to understand things from others’ perspectives.
The third is basically saying that there are bad people in the world and they are just evil. That there is no gray area. That evil people must be shut down, shut out, defeated. It’s us against them, and good must win. The Untruth of Us versus Them – life is a battle between good people and evil people.
This is crazy because we all should know that everyone has a little bit of both inside them. Everyone is subject to not fully understanding the other side, or of doing or saying something in ignorance. There is no one purely evil, with whom we can’t listen to, debate, or try to understand.
While this book was speaking about college students for the most part, I think it applies to kids and adults of all ages. As the book points out, social media is changing our society. We are curating content we want to see, filtering out content we don’t agree with. We are raising children to be fearful of strangers, fearful of getting hurt, fearful of boredom, fearful of not knowing the answer. We are starting to build this society where people feel the need to be safe all the time, and now that feeling of safety is erroneously being applied to intangible things. We say we don’t feel safe when someone simply says an offensive word. That doesn’t mean we’re actually in danger.
People need to learn to let others talk, execute their First Amendment rights, listen if they want to, but also let it roll off their back if they don’t agree. Or debate their own perspective if they feel they’re right and it’s worth a debate. People need to be open to idea that maybe someone just really didn’t know that what they said was offensive. And that’s okay. It’s worth having a conversation so that the faux pas doesn’t happen again.
People need to remember that we are stronger and better off when we learn from our mistakes. Whether that’s a child falling and hurting themselves, or a student failing a class and needing to retake it.
We need to stop coddling children, young adults, and ourselves, and remember that our culture and society is better off when we can have productive, meaningful conversations, when we face challenges, and when we recognize dissenting, yet valuable, viewpoints of all.