Paranoid Parenting… (Lukianoff and Haidt)

Have you heard of this book, The Coddling of the American Mind? Although it’s not a Christian book, it is one that’s helpful in many ways. The subtitle explains it more: “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” There’s common grace wisdom in this book, such as this old proverb: “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” In the first part, the authors talk about three Great Untruths that people today believe. First, what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. Second, always trust your feelings. The third untruth is that life is a battle between good people and evil people (it’s always ‘us’ vs ‘them’). These are brilliant observations that Lukianoff and Haidt explain quite well in the first part of the book. Today I was reading this section on paranoid parenting. I noted this well as a parent myself!

Paranoid parenting is a powerful way to teach kids all three of the Great Untruths. We convince children that the world is full of danger; evil lurks in the shadows, on the streets, and in public parks and restrooms. Kids raised in this way are emotionally prepared to embrace the Untruth of Us Versus Them: ‘Life is a battle between good people and evil people’ – a worldview that makes them fear and suspect strangers. We teach children to monitor themselves for the degree to which they “feel unsafe” and then talk about how unsafe they feel. They may come to believe that feeling “unsafe”(the feeling of being uncomfortable or anxious) is a reliable sign that they are unsafe (the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: ‘Always trust your feelings’). Finally, feeling these emotions is unpleasant; therefore, children may conclude, the feelings are dangerous in and of themselves – stress will harm them if it doesn’t kill them (the Untruth of Fragility: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker’).

If children develop the habit of thinking in these ways when they are young, they are likely to develop corresponding schemas that guide the way they interpret new situations in high school and college. They may see more danger in their environment and more hostile intent in the actions of others. They may be more likely than kids in previous generations to believe that they should flee or avoid anything that could be construed as even a minor threat. They may be more likely to interpret words, books, and ideas in terms of safety versus danger, or good versus evil, rather than using dimensions that would promote learning, such as true versus false, or fascinating versus uninteresting. While it is easy to see how this way of thinking, when brought to a college campus, could lead to request for safe spaces, trigger warnings, micro-aggression training, and biased response teams, it is difficult to see how this way of thinking could produce well-educated, bold, and open-minded college graduates.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, pages 177-178.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015