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So to Speak podcast transcript: What happened to American childhood? with Kate Julian and Greg Lukianoff
Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Kate Julien, Greg Lukianoff, welcome to the show.
Kate Julian: Thank you so much for having me.
Greg Lukianoff: I’m so thrilled to be on. I’m really excited you gave me the opportunity to talk about this particular article because I just thought it was so brilliant, and important, and informative.
Nico: Well Greg, if you don’t mind, I will take the host privilege here and ask the first question of Kate, which is: Kate, when did you first realize the startling rise in anxiety, depression, and even suicide in American children? Is this something that you came across in the statistics? There are a ton of them in your article. Or is this as the mother of a 6- and 10-year-old, is this something you noticed amongst their peers, amongst them, or even amongst yourself?
Kate: I think that for the past 10 years or so, anybody who follows the headlines and the research on this has been aware of various concerning numbers. Suicides are perhaps the most obvious one. Lots of people have talked about this, concerning signs that adolescents are suffering from much higher rates of depression and anxiety. Certainly as a parent, you’re right, there is a consciousness of these things that’s very different than what I remember growing up in the 80s. I was born in 1978, for context.
Given all of that, and also given my own family history – I have a disproportionate amount of pretty serious mental health problems on my side of the family. Lost one family member to addiction more or less, lost another to suicide. This is something that is really, really concerning to me. Basically, to loop back to your question of why I started digging into this, when editors of The Atlantic were looking for somebody to try to do a more holistic, like what’s happening beyond the smartphones, beyond a lot of the phenomena that have been discussed so far, I raised my hand because I have very personal reasons for being concerned.
Nico: Greg, when you wrote The Coddling of the American Mind in 2015, you posited as a contributing factor – you and your co-author, Jonathan Haidt – that smartphones and social media might be contributing to the rise in anxiety, and depression, and even suicide amongst young people. Now Kate, in your article from April of 2020, you found that you don’t think that’s as much of a contributor, although you think it’s a big contributor amongst those who are already predisposed to anxiety and depression, if I’m not misstating. Where do you both stand on that now? Greg, I’ll start with you, and then Kate, you can probably respond.
Greg: Oh, sure. I actually don’t think of this as disagreeing all that much. One thing that I’ve had to correct is, first of all, people will refer to The Coddling of the American Mind just as “Coddling,” I think more or less that our premise is that kids are spoiled, which is one of the reasons that I’ve always hated that title because that’s not at all what we’re saying. We talk about six different causal threads, and we definitely think that social media sped up both anxiety and depression, but I do think that there’s some amount of homophily going on there, where like is meeting like, and the Depeche Mode goth kids are talking to each other without any sort of sunny friend to cheer them up.
I do think that’s part of it, but I think that the limitations that Kate talks about are very real, like why would that affect kids who are too young to have smartphones? I always have to remind people that we have six different causal threads. The two that are influenced by smartphones we believe are teenage anxiety and depression, and polarization. I’m definitely a big believer that polarization pats us on the back for being in separate groups, and I think polarization increases the temperature on practically everything. But one of the reasons why I really, really wanted to talk to Kate was because two of our causal threats are about parenting.
Right now, I’m doing a series called “Catching Up With Coddling” on my blog, Eternally Radical Idea, and I just got to the section about Paranoid Parenting. And we hit that pretty hard, that essentially some of this is coming from excessive worry from parents, and some of it’s coming from the pressure to get into a fancy school, and all that kind of stuff. We also talk about how lack of free play and lack of unstructured time is making things so much worse. That was actually kind of a surprise chapter for both me and Haidt, just the idea that we didn’t think that would play that big of a role going in when we decided to devote a chapter to it.
But after reading Kate’s article, I just – again, I can’t say enough about it. I just think it’s so good, and I’m citing it all the time now. If anything, it left me feeling that we didn’t hit Paranoid Parenting enough. One thing that she brings to the conversation that I think is so important to keep in mind – and I’m a parent, too. I have a 2- and a 4-year-old. There is this kind of idea that this is a rational response to outside pressure, and that parents are acting with a cold, calculating rationality when in a lot of cases we’re acting out of a big sense of panic.
Kate: Exactly. Exactly.
Greg: That’s one reason why I love the article so much and one of the reasons why I wanted to have her on. Two things I really wanted to get into with her. One is just everything about the article. I have specific questions about specific quotes, but also one thing I think we didn’t hit hard enough – I ran this by Haidt – is what’s called “income inequality,” which I prefer to call “income stratification” because the idea that there should be no inequality, that’s not the world that we’re proposing.
But the idea that there’s an upper class now that you can fall out of and that it’s pretty hard to stay in it unless you’re super, super wealthy, that seems to be affecting every aspect of our society as well. We mention it, but I wanted to get Kate’s opinion on what role do you think that plays?
Kate: Should we jump to that question now?
Greg: I didn’t mean to, but I seem to have accidentally done it, so let’s do it.
Kate: This is something I did not discuss much, if at all, in the article, but which I think is so underappreciated. It’s not that it’s been completely unattended to. If you look at the work, for example, of Madeline Levine, the Bay Area psychologist who helped popularize the term “helicopter parenting” back in the late 00s, she talks a lot about the work of an academic psychologist named Suniya Luthar, who was then at Columbia and who is now, I believe, at Arizona State.
Luthar, for those who are not familiar with her work, has focused on the particular psychological precarity, and anxiety, and vulnerability of affluent children. This had not, to be clear, prior to her work, really been much of a concern for anybody. It’s hard to sell anybody on the idea that we should be concerned about the luckiest kids. But in fact, what she has gathered a pretty compelling set of data showing is that there is a funny distribution to various problems in adolescence including addition, depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior where you see a big cluster at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and then you see another big cluster at the very high end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
We first cited Luthar’s work in The Atlantic magazine several years ago in an article that my colleague, Hanna Rosin, wrote about a suicide cluster at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, which happens to be the high school that I attended and graduated from in 1996. Hanna used Luthar’s research as Madeline Levine had in her own books to try to unpack this question of why the luckiest kids in some sense might be the least lucky. Hanna isolated a few specific things, one of which had to do with something we’ve all heard about, academic pressure. But another more surprising cause that she found and that dovetailed with Luthar’s work was that these kids felt really isolated from their parents, which going back to what you were saying, is completely contrary to our stereotypes of helicopter parents. The whole idea of the helicopter parent is that they are hovering, that they are there, but in fact, a lot of these kids in these most affluent and most high-powered communities felt a lot of distance.
Nico: Is this a uniquely American phenomenon? You seem to suggest so in the article. And if it is, are we starting to see it percolate elsewhere?
Kate: All of these things are really hard to compare. That data is uneven by country. I do think that there is pretty solid evidence that whatever’s going on is uniquely bad in America. Some of the numbers that I cited in the piece about severely depressed teenagers being up by 50 percent over the past decade, the climb in suicide rates, there really isn’t anything that steep in any other country that I’ve seen evidence of. There are some increases in some places.
I think, though, just to belabor this point about socioeconomic status a minute more if I’m not boring everybody, part of what this comes back to and what Greg was alluding to was that the parents themselves are suffering from anxiety, and a lot of the research on anxiety when you really dig into it talks about what a familial disorder it is. And that’s partially for genetic reasons. In fact, anxiety disorders are probably the best understood thing in the psychological literature. We know that they’re much more common than they were a while ago. That’s not nearly about increased diagnosis and increased awareness, but that it’s actually more prevalent. We have data to show that.
But we also know in more granular detail that there’s this really tight connection between parents and kids, and not all of that is genetic. We know from animal studies and from a variety of other clever research that some of this has to do with parenting style. Returning to this question of socioeconomic stress, I found a couple of things that were really, really interesting on this.
There was a great study several years ago by a couple of economists named Therese Lund and Eric Dearing that looked at who did best in terms of anxiety, and the punchline of that is so counterintuitive to me and so telling, and it does underscore what this woman Suniya Luthar was finding. They found that the kids who had the best outcomes in terms of anxiety were not nearly lucky kids, kids with well-educated, affluent parents. They were kids who had well-educated, affluent parents who chose not to live in neighborhoods with other well-educated, affluent parents.
Nico: Wow. That’s incredibly interesting.
Greg: Honestly, a lot of this speaks to me on a personal level. I’m first generation American. We were pretty poor until my dad started working regularly again when I was 10 or 11, and when I got to Stanford for law school – which was a school I didn’t even know existed when I was younger, and I thought Yale was some terrible place in New Haven. I had no freaking clue what it was. It was very weird for me to talk to these other relatives of the straight woman that I dated, her cousin saying, “Oh, you know what it’s like, Greg, the pressure of having all your friends dying to get into this one particular school.” And I’m like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Kate: “No idea what you’re talking about. I am the weirdo.” Exactly, you have no sense of what that pressure cooker is like. And I don’t think that this is merely a matter of academic pressure. I think that that’s a big part of it, but I think the extent to which a lot of the conversation has focused on that has missed another equally if not more important aspect of parenting, including in these really privileged communities, that I think has been unrecognized.
And this is what I was really trying to hit in the article, which is that in some ways, it’s not so much that we’re inflicting too much stress on our kids, it’s that we’re not actually allowing them to experience enough stress in preparation for that later stress. In other words, we – I don’t like the word “coddle” either, but we protect, we insulate, we do everything we can to actually prevent them from experiencing or feeling any anxiety throughout early childhood, throughout early adolescence, and then suddenly they’re dumped into the really competitive rat race and they don’t remotely have the skills to deal with that. It’s the weird contrast between those two things, too much protection from stress, and then immersion in it.
Greg: Yeah, and that’s precisely our argument in Coddling of the American Mind.
Greg: I’m friends with Julie Lythcott-Haims. She was a Dean in the law school when I was there –
Kate: Also, I will note, a parent at the high school that I just mentioned.
Greg: Oh, my goodness. Oh, that’s incredible. Okay, yeah. My former assistant, Eli Feldman, he grew up there. This is one of those things I literally can’t even imagine it. But the way she describes it, and one of the reasons why I didn’t like the title at first, was partially because I was trying to say that no, I actually feel a great sympathy for these kids. This is the nexus between that and free time because you’re taking some of these kids who are, in some cases, just flat-out geniuses. You’re scheduling them from 6:00am to midnight, and they get to school – and Julie watched this happen in real-time. Just with increasing numbers of them, there are ones who didn’t know how to make basic decisions that gave them a locus of control and a sense of self-efficacy. The idea of checking with their parents in every single case.
And for people like me and Julie, that just broke our hearts because you’re taking this kid who could be super confident but not giving him enough exposure to the ups and downs of independence, but also not giving them some basic life skills that make them feel like they can live on their own in the real world.
Kate: Yeah, absolutely. You talk a lot about this in the book, in Coddling, that if you take the basic lessons of how something like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works and then you work backwards and try to figure out which parenting style would embody those lessons, you get something more or less the opposite of what we have now. And that seems particularly concerning when you’re talking about anxiety specifically, which to an extent I hadn’t personally realized until I dug in to the reporting for this piece, we now know really is a gateway to much more serious problems including not only depression but addiction, suicidality, a bunch of other problems that are frankly much harder to treat than the anxiety which sets it all off.
Greg: If you could talk a little more about that? Because there’s a quote in this about – something like if you’re afraid of dogs, the reason why you should be concerned about it because it makes you four times more likely to –
Kate: End up in a bad, bad place.
Greg: Can you talk more about that? Because that really blew me away. Oh, let me give the actual quote from Ronald Kessler.
Kate: At Harvard, yeah.
Greg: “A fear of dogs at age 5 or 10 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: Let me pause to say that that quote is something that Ron actually said to my colleague Scott Stossel which he included in his book on anxiety, his wonderful book My Age of Anxiety a few years back. It is, however, true. I’ve spoken to Kessler about this. He didn’t put that point in quite such colorful language, which is why we quoted from Scott’s book, but we have the benefit of a number of studies that have followed people from childhood onward at this point and tried to figure out what things were most likely to prefigure, predict, or cause – and sometimes it can be a bit hard to untangle what’s causal and what’s merely correlated to – later problems.
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.
I think that there is still, despite what you’ve said in Coddling and what other people have pointed out in other widely read publications and venues, there is just this really fundamental misunderstanding in the culture of what anxiety is. It’s ironic and really troubling in a weird way that the more prevalent this word becomes, the more parents think it’s their job to avoid it and to help their children avoid it. What we know, of course, is that occasional anxiety is part of life. We feel anxious when we’re faced with something stressful and, to some extent, that’s actually adaptive and good. We need the arousal of feeling nervous or stressed to deal effectively and rationally with certain kinds of problems. That’s just part of being human.
The problem is that it rises to the level of a disorder when the fear that it provokes and the avoidance of that fear starts to distort your whole life and to be out of proportion to the situation, to be incessant. This is where somebody like Ron Kessler is talking about the kid with the dog phobia becoming the kid who then later is avoiding other things, social situations, work situations potentially. The kid winds up self-medicating to try to deal with their feelings of anxiety, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Greg: Yeah, and this is something that from CBT and meditation, both of those things together – the reason why Haidt and I are friends is because we try to draw from all these different areas. A lot of it is that when I was getting therapy for my major depression, I had a great, super smart CBT therapist who was trying to remind me, “Your anxiety serves a function. It reminds you to do certain things and take certain actions. Now you’re old enough to use your rational brain to figure out something that can replace that.” And it was so empowering. Also, when you do meditation, one thing that they tell you that sounds totally counterintuitive is not to avoid thinking or not to avoid feeling, but to go into that thinking and feeling, which is so fascinating.
Oh, but I did want to do one thing because Nico likes to [00:20:20] show about free speech. Just for the listening audience, I want to be clear. I don’t know what the nexus is here. The reason why I wrote a lot about psychology and depression and all this kind of stuff is not just because I’ve experienced all these things. It has a very personal connection to me. But it’s because in 2013/2014 we started seeing large numbers of students coming into campus, and they weren’t just arguing that these speakers should not be allowed, or we need new speech codes, or all this other kind of stuff. They were arguing it very closely tied to a medical trauma-based understanding. So these things that don’t seem like they’d be related at all, that essentially if there’s an idea that campus itself has to deal with anything that could potentially be traumatic or merely even anxiety-producing, they have to deal with that. That has serious free speech implications, which is what led to Coddling of the American Mind, but also into this wonderful and terrifying at the same time area of inquiry. I just wanted to make sure we had the nexus there.
Nico: Well, one of the people who, Kate, you cite in your article is Erika Christakis, who of course is an expert on early childhood development, but also the center of the Yale Halloween costume controversy. Part of me thinks that the medicalization of censorship and the concern over emotional labor and feeling safe has some tie-in here with student anxiety, perhaps encouraged by their childhood and not confronting some of these troubling ideas or what they would call troubling ideas earlier in their lives.
Kate: No, absolutely. If we can introduce this notion of accommodation that I focus on a lot in the piece, I think that is helpful to understand how some of this actually impacts –
Greg: Yes, let’s talk about accommodation. I think our listeners need to hear that.
Nico: And turkey loaf, if you would.
Kate: Yeah, turkey loaf. I have to get to the turkey loaf. So in talking to various researchers as I was starting to report this piece, over and over people kept saying, “Have you talked to Eli Lebowitz yet? Have you talked to Eli Lebowitz yet?” Eli Lebowitz teaches at the Child Study Center at Yale, and he has developed a program called SPACE, which basically treats childhood anxiety by working with the parents directly and exclusively, without even seeing the children in most cases except for possibly a baseline evaluation and then a follow-up evaluation. And this treatment is based upon a concept known as accommodation.
Accommodation is basically anything that a parent does to try to help a child avoid feeling anxious. This comes from the literature and treatment approaches for OCD. When Lebowitz was a psychiatry resident in Israel, he was working part of his time in an anxiety clinic for kids and part of his time in an OCD clinic. And with the OCD kids, they would work a lot on getting the parents to reduce accommodation of the child’s OCD symptoms. For example, you would have a family come in for treatment where the kid’s got issues around cleanliness so everybody in their house is engaging in ritualistic hand washing to try to make the kid feel calmer, or everybody is avoiding a certain word. And it worked actually pretty well by getting other members of the family to stop accommodating. It helped pave the way for the kids to have to confront their anxieties around these things. And conversely, when parents did more of the accommodating, the kid’s disorder tended to get worse.
And then, Lebowitz said he would head down the hall to the anxiety clinic, and he would have to do these calls with families who’d come in for treatment with a non-treatment-compliant kid, a kid who didn’t want help. And they would say, “Isn’t there something that we can do?” and he would have to say to them, “No. Actually, if a kid’s not ready to play ball, there’s really nothing I can do for you.” He thought this was really silly, like, “What if I were to try to apply this notion of accommodation to anxiety instead of to OCD?” He did that, and he found in the last several years at Yale running this program – and he's published some good articles on this in the past couple of years – that he can get results as good as or probably slightly better than CBT for childhood anxiety without actually treating the kids.
What he does is he works with the parents to help them identify what they are doing to help ease the kid’s anxiety, and then counterintuitively asks them to stop doing it. Almost magically, voila, the kid’s symptoms tend to abate over time. That’s because the kid has to confront whatever it is that they’re avoiding, whatever it is they’re scared of, and in time the kid realizes, “I can do this.” It’s like CBT by proxy. You go through the exposure to the thing you’re scared of and you find that it’s not quite as scary as you thought.
There’s a great example that one of Lebowitz’s colleagues gave me, and I spoke to the family involved. This was a really lovely child who I call Owen in the piece who had a pathological fear of most foods. Owen had eaten virtually nothing for three years except for turkey meatloaf and dry Cheerios for breakfast. His parents had prepared literally thousands of portions of turkey meatloaf for this kid. It had started off quite innocently where they had this kid who’d been in the NICU, who then had feeding issues, and they were very worried about keeping him nourished, very worried about actually doing what they saw as their most fundamental job as parents, keeping their kid fed. But over time, the kid just became more and more and more picky, more and more and more scared of other types of food, and they had found themselves backed into this corner.
So the SPACE program very simply worked with the parents to get them to stop doing this, and now the kid is doing great. He’s not an adventurous eater, but he can function in the world. What’s very interesting to me about this is not only how successful this approach is, but how much understanding parents’ very well-intended efforts to insulate kids actually backfires, and it’s a really dramatic crystallization of that.
Greg: This is a good time to bring up some of the other things I’ve been doing in “Catching Up with Coddling.” One thing I think that Haidt and I did in the book that I’m really glad we did was when we got to the parenting issues, we stepped away from it and said, “Neither of us are or can become parenting experts,” so we just interviewed a ton of different people about it. That included Erika Christakis, and Lenore Skenazy, and Peter Gray, and Julie, of course, and many others.
And in updating it, one of the things I’m updating it with is, for example, Achtung Baby by Sara Zaske, which is a book that talks about how Germany seems to have a somewhat built-in resistance to some of this stuff because there’s a very strong, even painful focus on fostering independence, which I thought was a very interesting insight. But the book that I was thinking about with regard to the income stratification thing is – and one thing I will say about this book, the least memorable title of any book. I can never remember it, but it’s Love, Money, & Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, and this is Doepke and Zilibotti. Have you read this one?
Kate: I haven’t, no. What’s the argument?
Greg: The argument is essentially that if you look at countries across the world, the ones that have the greatest income stratification are the ones that have the greatest focus on hard work and the most anxious kids, which makes a fair amount of sense.
Kate: One thing that I find, as we talk about this income stratification point, interesting with regard to anxiety specifically – and this takes us a little bit away from what I’ve been talking about, which is the way that parental behavior is making the problem worse – is the idea that actually, maybe there might be some sort of genetic susceptibility that’s increasing due to assortative mating.
Greg: Very interesting.
Kate: Pretty fascinating stuff on that. I didn’t really have space or time to get into it in the article, but Judith Warner’s book We’ve Got Issues, which came out maybe in 2011 and which is about medication and childhood psychiatric issues, has a really interesting section on this which I would – let me see if I can actually find it here. She says, “Assortative mating is a fascinating concept, one that’s been taken up by a wide range of social scientists in different contexts. Some evolutionary psychologists have warned that the pumping up of certain kids’ genes through the now-common practice of high-level professionals marrying other high-level professionals will increase our country’s class-related achievement gap. Eating disorder experts have wondered whether new trends in spousal selection of the past 30-odd years can explain the increase in earlier incidents of anorexia nervosa in today’s girls.”
And then, she goes on to talk about other people who have speculated about whether this might be the case with anxiety as well. In other words, you’re more likely to have high-functioning anxious parents meeting each other in higher educational settings and having children. And this is obviously related to an argument that Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, has made with regard to possibly autism, but there’s some numerical support for it.
There’s a couple of anxiety researchers, Kathleen Merikangas at NIMH and Myrna Weissman of Columbia, who have studied quite a bit familial aggregation of a whole bunch of things: depression, alcoholism, and anxiety, too. They have found real support for the idea that some of the spike we’re seeing is probably due to more anxious people marrying more anxious people, more than was likely to be the case in the past.
Greg: This is fascinating to me because a lot of my overall view on some of the messed-up things about current society is – I use the very sexy term “runaway homophily.”
Kate: Right, exactly.
Greg: It’s essentially that we are allowed to super-sort ourselves, our natural inclination is to meet people who are like us. And of course, I joke all the time with my wife about the good and the bad things we have on the Punnett square. On both sides of the Punnett square, you’re kind of doomed to this thing. That makes a lot of sense, though. That insight by itself is really going to help inform my next couple pieces of “Catching Up With Coddling.”
Kate: I have to jump back to the accommodation thing, but before I went on that tangent I realized there’s a point I wanted to make that I think does bring this back to some of the free speech issues and the larger civil society issues that you’re concerned with. That has to do with how this misguided parental belief that we need to insulate kids from anxiety and stress is actually playing out in schools. There’s been some work following up on Eli Lebowitz’s work trying to apply this notion of accommodation to anxiety, looking at how school policies to deal with anxious kids may or may not be repeating that mistake, often at the behest of parents.
For example, if you look at how schools say they are managing student anxiety, a lot of really common responses – parent-requested responses in many cases – are actually really contrary to what the science would say and what CBT would say you need to do with the anxious kid. For example, we have rising use of mental health days, we have rising phenomena of kids being able to get extra time for tests, special dispensation from oral speaking assignments, get-out-of-class passes to go to the nurse’s office, all of these things. And they do also fit into this culture of saying that kids shouldn’t have to be exposed to things that upset them. There’s no question about that.
Nico: Just as an aside here, I know you’ve written about the sex recession as well. Does this play into that at all? You have this wonderful part of your essay where you go through the ways that parents accommodate their children, including announcing when they’re moving from different rooms. I wondered – sex can be messy. Sex can be difficult. Consent can be messy. Is the same sort of anxiety that’s driving some of these childhood behaviors also driving kids or teenagers or young adults to be leery of sex and all the messiness that it entails?
Kate: I think absolutely, and I’ve thought about that a lot. I’m actually expanding the sex recession article into a book right now. Since the anxiety article came out, that’s what I’ve been focusing on, this question of why today’s young adults are, on average, less likely to be engaged in romantic or sexual experiences and relationships, and why they are so leery of intimacy. There’s a straightforward answer to this which I discussed in the earlier magazine article, which is we know anxiety is a big libido killer. That’s straightforward, but I think that what you’re saying is 100 percent spot on. Romantic, physical, other types of intimacy involve spontaneity, messiness, awkwardness, embarrassment, all kinds of things that people who have issues with anxiety are likely to struggle with.
I also think that when we talk about some of the stuff that you’ve discussed with Lenore Skenazy, Peter Gray, Julie Lythcott-Haims, these other people, there’s an argument to be made – and Peter Gray does make this argument – play really is fundamentally, evolutionarily, one of these things that prepares us for interpersonal relationships, for getting along with other people, for reading other people. It’s something that’s obviously very key to some of the consent issues that we’re dealing with right now, knowing whether somebody’s into something or not into something.
Peter Gray likes to say these kids who are engaged in non-parent-supervised play have to figure out whether the other kid’s having a good time if they want to keep the play session going. I do think that when you don’t have that experience in childhood, having to deal with an intimate relationship can actually be kind of scary.
Greg: This is all super interesting to me because, like I said, the play section was something we weren’t expecting to have. Haidt liked to really emphasize how it teaches you to handle interpersonal negotiations and make decisions on your own, and I even go a step further. Yuval Harari really popularized the idea of – what is it? Intersubjective reality, that essentially we forget sometimes that banks more or less only exist in our heads, that we all decided that this time we’re playing for real-sies, and now we’re going to imagine there’s a thing out there. And he’s really brought to the attention how much imagination plays into our everyday life in a way that we don’t even understand.
So the taking away of free play, it’s amazing how much that teaches you. And I have to say, that was my superpower when I got to college. I’d been working since I was 11. I was not overwhelmed by the responsibility and potential of personal freedom to a degree, and I felt bad in some cases for the kids who also went to law school who hadn’t had a job in order to compare how hard law school was because compared a real job, frankly, law school just wasn’t all that hard.
Kate: No, I believe this, and I talk about this a bit in the anxiety article. I really believe that the decline of the summer job, the decline of the after school job, the decline of chores, the decline of walking yourself to school, all these things, it may seem like an obvious point, but they do provide you with experience with physical discomfort and unpleasantness. And if you don’t have those things, I’m not sure really what substitutes.
Nico: Yeah, it kind of shocked me in your article how few kids are riding their bikes to school now because that was a huge part of my childhood, and hanging out around the bike racks with my friends while we were locking up our bikes before class was a big part of my social life. It seems like now only 10 percent of kids walk or bicycle to school.
Kate: Isn’t that wild?
Nico: It’s a steep decline. It’s amazing. And kids aren’t working summer jobs or after school jobs, which was a very big part of my childhood as well. Before we wrap up here, I want to bring this to the present day a little bit. You wrote your article in April, and the only time when COVID is mentioned – and it probably went in late at the editing stage – is in the beginning. There’s a little hat tip to it. I know these articles are in the works months or weeks before they go in.
Kate: Yeah, exactly. I had written this two months ahead of time. Perhaps I should’ve had some glimmer of what was coming, but I did not.
Nico: But parental stress, as you make clear in the article, can contribute to stress and anxiety and depression in the children. You write in the article that treating the depressed mother with antidepressants quickly reduced depressive symptoms in her child. So I have to wonder, with COVID we have people losing their jobs, we have parents who are struggling to work from home while also playing teacher to their kids because a lot of school are closed. I can only imagine – just anecdotally; I don’t have kids – that the stress and anxiety of raising kids has just been ratcheted up exponentially. And I know it’s probably too soon to see the data on this, but I can’t imagine any of the trends you discuss in this article are made better by COVID. Are they?
Kate: Ugh, this is such a complicated question, and I think absolutely, it is too soon to know for sure. And I also think that the socioeconomic differences here are going to be intense. I think there is some evidence – Jean Twenge published an article in The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago on the website looking at some data she crunched from this spring and comparing it to a year prior in terms of how kids were doing in terms of anxiety, depression, and other symptoms. And counterintuitively, a lot of them were actually doing better. She tries to come up with some theories as to why that may be the case.
It certainly tracks with my own quick round of re-reporting after the pandemic as I was preparing to do interviews on this piece and trying to get smart. A lot of kid anxiety experts said yes, on the one hand, the parents’ anxiety is a big issue here and that will have effects on the kids. On the other hand, kids are insulated from a lot of the things that are their sources of stress right now. For a lot of kids, social anxiety is a huge, huge issue. We know, fascinatingly in fact, that pre-pandemic, there’s some school year tie-in to trends in kids’ mental health issues. So historically, among most people, suicide rates spike in the summer. We know that the opposite has been happening with kids in recent years, that they happen to go up during the school year and go down in the summer. Other things also seem to get worse during the school year.
So for a lot of kids, for all the complaining about distance learning, for kids who are not at the more economically precarious end of the socioeconomic spectrum, they actually are feeling pretty good right now, especially if they suffer from anxiety, because they’re not having to deal with social and academic stress. If they are kids that have some of the more common childhood anxiety disorders such as Separation Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, they’re just not having to confront those right now. Of course, what that means is that when we go back to normal, whatever normal is, it may be really, really, really difficult for them to re-enter life outside the home.
One thing I was just going to add to that is that school refusal is a big, big issue. It’s an underrecognized but really almost epidemic problem in some areas among high schoolers, and I worry very much about that following the pandemic.
Greg: One of the things I was saying towards the beginning of this is that actually, maybe there’s some potential good in the sense that it’s inherently chaotic, and kids will go through an experience where they feel like they made it through something, kind of like for the same reason horror movies actually tend to leave you feeling better at the end. You feel like you’re competent, you’re getting through it, there’s a lot more free time, there’s a lot more figuring things out on your own. So I do think – I’m going to be super curious about different types of studies, particularly differences among socioeconomic lines. I’d be utterly fascinated by all that. But I do see, at least I think for some kids, they’re going to come out of this feeling a little bit more empowered. I doubt that’s going to be the norm.
Nico: Is there some sort of correlation between big, global events or unrest and a decline in these sorts of phenomena, anxiety, depression, suicide? I vaguely recall someone at the beginning of this saying that during World War II, you saw drops in some of these suicides. Is there a sense of solidarity you get dealing with –
Kate: I’m not an expert in this by any means, but there’s some fascinating stuff in Scott Stossel’s book, My Age of Anxiety, that talks about experiences of people who went through some of the more brutal aspects of World War II having less of an issue, surprisingly, with anxiety and depression following that. In other words, they’d gone through something worse than anybody could imagine and after that, other things seemed less challenging.
Greg: Yeah, I definitely have seen that in action with a lot of people. My dad was an orphan in Yugoslavia in the 30s, and he has a matter-of-fact ability to talk about it. That being said, he certainly didn’t get out of it unscathed. That’s a whole other story.
I did want to ask one impertinent question in this. I read this whole thing, and I felt like it was so on board with what we were saying in Coddling, and I knew that you had spoken to Haidt. And the reason why I’m sensitive to this is because James Bennett wrote something right before he got tossed basically disowning the title Coddling, which felt a little bit personal because he was the person who – any reason no shout-out to Coddling?
Kate: Oh, absolutely. And I will say, I read Coddling. I’m an editor at the magazine, and although I didn’t work with you guys on that piece, I certainly read versions of it when it was in the editorial process and when Don Peck was editing it. And then, of course, I read the book when it came out. As I was reporting this piece back in January/December timeframe, I re-read the book and I actually called Don, who was my editor at that point – or one of my editors on this piece – and I said, “Actually, I don’t really think I should do this piece. I think it’s all kind of derivative of Coddling.” And he said, “Don’t be silly. Write the piece.”
Greg: And I love it. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to do the podcast with you, because this is going to reframe my whole thinking on the paranoid parenting thing, and I was actually mildly disappointed – well, actually, no. I’m a little torn. I’m dying to read your sex recession book because as far as a phenomenon that I would’ve been like, “This can’t possibly be a thing.” You know, human nature, the idea that we start actually shrinking away from that –
Kate: Talk about the opposite of adaptive behavior.
Greg: Yeah, exactly. But I am mildly disappointed to hear that you’re not – do you have any intention of writing a book about this? Because it’s such a deep topic.
Kate: You know, I don’t think so, but I do think that some of this will find its way into the sex recession book. I had always planned to have a chapter or more about how childhood and adolescence might figure into all of this, and I think that I will probably expand that section somewhat.
Greg: I think this can probably be my last question just because it’s getting a little bit off topic, but I’m fascinated by it. The sex recession is specifically intense in Japan. I assume you’ve looked into that. I think that was in the original article. Any thoughts there?
Kate: Well, the Japan example is just endlessly fascinating. I could spend all day talking about it. I’m a little bit wary of it because I do feel like the causes there may not be entirely overlapping with the causes here. For example, Japan’s gender norms and culture of romance and dating are so wildly different than ours. They had arranged marriage through World War II, and in the postwar period, the norm was for couples to meet in the office. You had a lot of young women who had office jobs until they met a spouse, and then they quit. And following Japan’s economic crisis, that all fell apart. So there’s a big, structural economic cause of their failed dating culture. There wasn’t another way for people to meet each other really that was set up.
And I’m not sure that that’s exactly what’s happened here, although certainly there may be a bit of commonality. So that’s one big part of it. In the magazine article, I talked a lot about Japan’s relationship with porn and masturbation and stuff like that. There may be something there, but those things are very complicated as well when you really dig down.
Greg: Besides the anxiety issue – actually, this is a question I really should end on, but what’s the thing that you found out so far that surprised you the most in your research either on this article or on the sex recession?
Kate: Oh, wow. You’re going to have to give me a second. I should have an answer to this.
Nico: Take your time. We can cut out the white noise.
Greg: And believe me, I understand. It’s similar to ask me about Coddling. My answer would’ve been so –
Kate: I’m just glancing at my notes here for one second. You know, I would have to say what may actually seem, following this conversation, not that surprising, which is just the extent to which anxiety is much more treatable than the problems to which it leads and the extent to which we’re doing the very opposite of the things that we ought to do to prevent it. It’s just one of these almost tragic examples of low-hanging fruit, and we really need to do much more and quickly to rethink the way that we’re preparing kids for adversity.
Nico: You quote a mother in your article who says that “anxiety is the road to hell.” But then, as you were saying earlier, there’s some anxiety that’s a regular part of life. How do parents distinguish between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder, especially in our age of intense sensitivity to anxiety?
Kate: Right. Well, I think this idea of accommodation is actually a really great way to check yourself and check your kid. Is your kid’s anxiety about something so severe that you’re having to change your behavior in response to it? If so, that should be a big red flashing light, both because that’s a sign that the anxiety has crossed over into pathological territory and because it’s a sign that you’re doing something in response that’s going to make the problem worse and not better. So for example, if you find yourself having to lie in bed with your kid at night because your kid is that afraid of being alone or being in the dark, if you’re having to curtail your own social life because your kid can’t deal with having strangers in the house, those types of things would be a sign that there’s something that you really need to look at closely here.
Greg: As a parent, I get all of this stuff. I’m working on something called a “Coddling Caveat,” just to explain. I really tried to have this in the book originally, but it got taken out because I think someone thought it might sound insincere, but I really want to emphasize my sincerity. I am an anxious parent, and I understand all the desire to take care of all of these issues, but it does seem like so much of what we’re finding out over the last several years in social science is that your grandmother may not have been right about everything, but she was right about more than we used to give her credit for.
Kate: A lot more. A lot more. And I guess as a caveat to my own article, I would like to say that I identify intensely with many of the behaviors that I identify as problematic. I don’t talk about it more in the article because I’ve made a deal with my family that I’m not going to talk about my kids in print.
Nico: Fair enough.
Kate: But I as a parent am absolutely culpable, and this stuff is hard.
Nico: I’m not a parent. How much of it is just social pressure? I can imagine if you’re not seeing any other kids riding their bike to school or walking to the local corner store, and you’re seeing all the other kids in your child’s grade taking music lessons and going to their sporting game and having intense structured time, the pressure on you as a parent would be to go along and not give them the free play or the ability to fail, which seems to me to be one of the most important lessons that a child can have growing up, the lessons that come from failure. But you don’t want to be that parent who looks like they’re not just a bad parent but a parent who doesn’t care about their child.
Kate: Absolutely. These are fundamentally group problems at the end of the day. I think that’s part of why when Lenore Skenazy’s Let Grow group is really so important, because they’re trying to get whole communities involved in the discussion. And the solution is, you can’t do this by yourself, not only because you as an anxious parent will feel like, “Gosh, am I really right about letting my kid go to the park by himself or do this other thing?” And also because for the kid it’s frankly not the greatest to think, “Nobody else’s parents let them do this thing. Does my parent not love me?” It has to be something that we deal with together as a community.
Nico: Well, I think we’ll leave it there. Greg, did you have any other last questions? It sounded like your last one was your last one.
Greg: You mean my three last ones? This was spectacular. I love your article on – I’m going to keep on telling everyone in the world to read it. Do you have any idea when the sex recession book is – I’m always very sensitive of asking this of an author, when their book might come out.
Kate: It’s supposed to be a couple years from now, 2022. It’s a bit hard to imagine what the world looks like next year let alone the year after.
Nico: That’s part of the problem of talking about this stuff, is that the data keeps evolving. It’s like you’re in the thick of it. It’s not like you’re a historian looking at some far off phenomenon, so it must be difficult to keep it up to date.
Kate: It’s intense.
Greg: And I’m very aware of the fact, for example, since I talk about so many of the evils of social media that I’m also predicting that we’ll have better cultural mechanisms for at least dealing with some of these at some point, so what the data’s going to look like, and why in the future – anyway, it’s all interesting. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you so much, Nico, for hosting us. This was great.
Nico: Yeah. Kate and Greg, thanks again.
Kate: Thank you so much for having me.