EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh part of a multi-part series updating developments since the publication of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure” (2018).
Earlier in this series:
• Part One: Introduction
• Part Two: Trigger warnings, social media, and mental health
• Part Three: Censorship from the right
• Part Four: Political polarization
• Part Five: Paranoid parenting
• ‘Coddling’ Caveat #1: Social media
• Part Six: U.S. income stratification
Future articles can be found here.
As readers will likely know, Haidt and I made “paranoid parenting” one of our causal threads to explain some of the idiosyncrasies of Generation Z, including higher rates of depression and anxiety and medicalized justifications for limiting freedom of speech. Kate’s article is such a revelation because it focuses squarely on how parental anxiety contributes to anxiety in children. Far from the model of parents acting hyper rationally towards their kids’ success, Kate paints a picture that sounds much more familiar to those of us who are parents, one that is not so rational and saturated with fears for and about our children.
After reading Kate’s cover story, I simply had to have her on FIRE’s podcast, So To Speak, to ask more questions. I can’t do the podcast justice here, but I want to give a little sampling of what we discuss.
- Parental accommodation of anxiety may be the root cause of the increase in anxiety for Generation Z. “Accommodation” refers to anything a parent does to avoid a child feeling anxiety; for example, keeping a light on for a child who is afraid of the dark, or consistently cooking the same meal for a picky eater. The problem with accommodation is that avoiding little stressors leaves children unequipped to handle bigger stressors later in life, especially in college. The “anti-fragility” of children that Haidt and I wrote about in COTAM never has a chance to work if children are never given a chance to experience stressors.
- Some of the most effective interventions for childhood stress involve addressing the parents’ anxiety first and foremost. In the podcast, Kate describes the work of Eli Lebowitz at the Yale Child Study Center and his Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) program. Lebowitz works with parents to help them identify and curb their accommodation instincts. The parents become less anxious because their lives are less disrupted, and the child becomes less anxious through normal anti-fragile growth.
- The risks of not teaching students to overcome their anxieties early are grave.
I’ll directly quote from the transcript, here, because the words of Harvard Medical School’s Ronald Kessler (as quoted first by Scott Stossel in “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind,” and then by Kate in her article) sum it up best:
Greg: “A fear of dogs at age five or ten is important not because a fear of dogs impairs the quality of your life. Fear of dogs is important because it makes you four times more likely to end up a 25-year-old depressed high school dropout single mother who is drug dependent.” Is that true?
Kate: [...] We know from these studies, and from some other things that have looked at treatment efforts and early intervention, that when anxiety in childhood is untreated, it is the kids that have it who are much more likely to suffer from depression and these other problems later on. And we know looking at the dog point specifically, that there are certain anxiety disorders that tend to pop up earliest. There’s almost a kind of order. Dog-phobia is important because it is a sign that the child is suffering from anxiety, and that if the kid doesn’t learn to deal with that anxiety, they are more likely to become avoidant of things that scare them over time.
- Some of the increase in anxiety may be attributable to assortative mating. That is, more anxious people meeting each other and having kids could mean a higher likelihood of kids genetically prone to anxiety. Researchers Kathleen Merikangas and Myrna Weissman have found support for the idea that families aggregate characteristics like depression, alcoholism, and anxiety. And as colleges attract more high-functioning anxious people, more of those people are going to meet, marry, and make little, high-functioning anxious people.
- The runaway homophily theory: my theory that a shocking amount of the societal ills are seeing today are the direct result of the ability to sort ourselves at every level of our lives. Like-minded people moving physically closer to each other and finding each other online may be leading to peculiarities like increased political polarization and depression clusters. Communities like Palo Alto in Silicon Valley show high rates of anxiety and suicide partially because like-minded young adults (who may already share similar mood disorders) sort themselves around a strong commitment to elite education, thereby creating a stressful environment with expectations that are intense.
- Potential students who grow up in different communities that don’t have the expectation that you go to elite colleges, do not exhibit the same level of achievement-related stress. Because anxiety about U.S. income stratification appears to be a seventh causal thread of college-age stress, students in affluent communities can experience an “echo-chamber” of educational anxiety that is less common in less affluent communities. I can personally attest to this, and do in the podcast. I had plenty of stressors as a kid but getting into an elite college was not one of them.
- Lack of free play deprives children of critical skills, like the ability to navigate intersubjective realities. Intersubjectivity is the idea that some systems in the world work primarily on our mutual agreement that they should, whether that’s the banking system, a game of Monopoly, or the way we’ve all agreed to pretend that Spider-Man is fictional in order to help protect Aunt May. Navigating intersubjective realities as children through unsupervised play helps us develop the skills necessary to navigate relationships later in life — including romantic relationships. In short, if you never learned how to tell if someone’s having a good time playing hopscotch, you might struggle to figure out if the person at the bar is really into you.
I get very excited about the interrelationship between childhood play, imagination, and civilization. So many of the institutions we believe in only exist because we’ve all agreed to imagine they exist. Yuval Noah Harari explains the importance of imagination in everyday life in his bestseller “Sapiens.” I think of so many of our institutions as an intersubjective decision to play school, law, and banks “for realsies.”
Okay, I can keep this up all day. There is so much good stuff that relates to our work in this podcast, I really just recommend you listen to the podcast or read the transcript carefully.
But all this leads me to a new “Coddling Caveat.” An objection that I’ve often been told since we released COTAM is that we simply don’t understand how hard it is not to be an anxious or paranoid parent in modern times. Au contraire. I am not just an anxious person as I discuss in the book, I am an anxious parent!
I was reminded of this fact recently in Maryland with my family. We came upon some very scary stairs — worn, steep steps, extending very high, and with no handrail on one side. (Pictured at left.) My first, strong impulse was that we needed to carry our kids — two boys, then ages 2 and 4 — up the stairs for their own safety. Thankfully, my more level-headed wife was there to tell me how ridiculous that I was being! But yes, I can confirm that for those of us with an impulse for paranoid parenting, the free range parenting techniques are counterintuitive and hard! Checking yourself on your anxious parenting tendencies, and, if you’re lucky, having a partner to remind you of your values can be critical.
Thank you Kate for coming on the podcast, I really loved our conversation, and I hope you will stay in touch about this and about your forthcoming book about the sex recession!