Among the laws that rule human societies, there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve. ~ Alexis de Tocqueville
In their excellent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt document how overprotective “helicopter parenting” is creating kids who aren’t able to take care of themselves as adults and become uncomfortable when confronted with opposing viewpoints. This phenomenon is transforming institutions such as universities, (where students aren’t adequately prepared for debate) into ideological echo chambers. It is also creating an environment where outcome gaps are being used as evidence of systemic injustice rather than as a starting point for investigation.
So what’s the solution? Here are three suggestions from the authors of the book:
Assume your kids are more capable this month than they were last month.
I frankly fall short on this one – way short.
For example, having decided at one point that my son was capable of making his own lunches it didn’t take too long for me to take the task back over. Between the mess left behind, his poor choice in foods, and the fact that we were both arriving to our destinations harried, late, and in a foul mood I decided to focus handing over less mission critical tasks.
Because I’m so concerned about my own schedule and my own to-do list, I’m always hesitant to course correct in the middle of the school year by handing over more responsibilities.
Let your kids take more small risks.
When my son was a few years old, he decided he was old enough to remove the toast from the toaster oven himself. Although my wife wasn’t too keen on the idea since he was most assuredly going to burn himself (which he most assuredly did) I felt that the lessons learned would serve him (and us) well. That is, long after his bandages were removed (and my wife started speaking to me again) he was mindful around not just the toaster oven but even the pots and pans as well.
Clearly, some lessons are better left unlearned. For example, I blew part of my right hand off in a gun accident when I was a kid. Now, as I introduce my son to guns, I go to great lengths to reinforce safe gun practices and manage risks. In addition to the obvious, for me, that has meant starting him off with a pellet gun, wearing eye protection, and keeping a close eye on him even while participating in activities such as airsoft.
Encourage your children to engage in “productive disagreement.”
While describing his travels in the United States in the 1830s, Alex de Tocqueville wrote of a country steeped in voluntary associations that cut across societal boundaries. From Democracy in America he wrote:
Americans group together to hold fêtes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the antipodes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method. Finally, if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association.
Recently though, as documented in books such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and the Social Capital Project, membership in voluntary associations is in steep decline. This is a troubling trend since I believe voluntary associations have long served as America’s teaching ground for civil discourse.
Debate, disagreement, and discussion are fundamental to the fabric of our democracy and if we’re not learning to argue respectfully in associations (or schools) then the onus is on us as parents to encourage our children to engage in productive disagreement.
How might we do that?
As referenced in Lukianoff and Haidt’s book, in his article, “Kids, Would You Please Start Fighting?” (NYT), Psychologist Adam Grant offers four excellent suggestions:
- Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict.
- Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong.
- Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.
- Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.
Indeed, as I read No Hate Left Behind where Thomas Edsall describes how “lethal partisanship is taking us into dangerous territory” I couldn’t help but believe things could be made better if parents consider the four aforementioned suggestions while raising their kids.
On that note, so that I can prepare myself for the next productive disagreement with my son about why Takis don’t count as lunch, now is a good time to check out for the week. Before I do though, here (and on our Spotify playlist) are Lyle Lovett and KD Lang singing their version of the song “Release Me,” a song that definitely sets the stage for the most difficult sort of disagreement:
Please release me, let me go
I don’t love you anymore
To live together is a sin
Release me and let me love again
It’s songs like this that make me fall in love with country music again. Of course, given that it also makes me want to hop in a truck, light up a cigarette, and take a long road trip, next week’s blog may be a little late.
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