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My Notes from The Knowledge Project #61 – When Good Intentions Go Bad with Jonathan Haidt: July 2, 2019

Jonathan Haidt is an American social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and author. His main areas of study are the psychology of morality and the moral emotions. Dr. Haidt is one of the primary authors of the book The Coddling of the American Mind.

Description and Disclaimer:

All of the information in these should be considered the knowledge and thoughts of the participants or authors. I may have summarized or paraphrased, but as a whole these are not my own thoughts.

Any time I add my own thoughts to the notes, I use the notation PT (personal thought) to indicate such.

Coddling of Children: When Good Intention Go Bad

Coddling essentially means overprotecting.

Every generation feels the current generation of kids is being coddled. The reason now is different is because the statistics on mental health disorders are going haywire. One of the most alarming parts of this concern is the data is only spiking for anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. There does not appear to be an increase in other mental health categories. Just these four mental health disorders.

The generation of kids born after 1995 are creating the most concern. Never before have these statistics increased for a generation so quickly.

The statistics for girls are even more alarming. All of the categories are up steadily and sharply for girls. For comparison, the suicide rates in boys has increased by 25%. For girls it has increased 70%. (In the podcast, Dr. Haidt cites a graph of 2016 – 2017 data found in the book iGen and his own research found here.)

Looking at these numbers makes us wonder why this is happening. It comes back to coddling. Humans learn from experience. As parents we have created the idea that our children are precious and to be protected.

In a variety of ways we have deprived kids of the childhood experiences they most need and replaced it with too much supervision and too many after school activities.

Starting in the 1990’s, parents began really overprotecting kids. The nation began to worry about abductions and other dangers. Parents quit letting kids have free unsupervised time to learn on their own. Haidt describes the kids raised in an environment of overprotection as “fragile”.

Ages 8 – 12 is a critical period for freedom for kids. Today’s kids are not experiencing this freedom. Parents today script every part of every day for their kids.

Our investment (or over investment) in our kids has deprived them of the thousands of opportunities to get feedback from the world. Some of this feedback is painful and this is important.

As the title indicates, parents are doing these things with good intentions, but as a whole, we are overparenting. We especially rescue our kids when it comes to school.

We could be losing a whole generation of girls.
PT – As a father of girls, what am I doing to prevent this? How can I better understand the dangers and maybe help others understand them too?

We need to let kids make their own mistakes and learn from them. But how?

One very interesting alternative is Free Range parenting. Free range parenting is “making a deliberate effort to give freedom to kids.” It is scary but the right thing to do. Haidt challenges parents to think about when they were set free. PT – (for me it was about age 8)

Two of the challenges with free range parenting are other parents who will shame you for your choices and the law.

The true data on present rates of child abductions indicates the probability your kids will be taken is very low. Even so, laws across the nation make it difficult for parents to give their kids enough freedom to make mistakes on their own.

The goal of these laws should be about preventing the neglect of kids. Unfortunately, the implementation has created a situation where parents who are not supervising their kids are considered to be neglecting them.

PT – I found it interesting that Haidt specifically stated he believes this implementation has really contributed to the increased suicide rates.

Finally, parents who don’t agree with the free range concept get very defensive because they see this philosophy as an accusation they are the real ‘bad’ parents for overprotecting their kids.

Parents should find simple things their kids can do on their own and start there.

Dangers of Social Media

“How many of you will let your kids use devices without restrictions?” – Not a single hand went up.

Haidt shares this story of a discussion he had with a group of 18 – 22 year old university students. These are students who almost all got their first device by middle school and used it with little or no restrictions.

Why are they now saying they will not let their own kids use devices without restrictions? Much for the same reason many silicon valley executives don’t let their own kids use them.

There are real dangers that come from unrestricted access to smartphones.

One of these dangers is social media. Especially for girls!

Haidt is very clear that screen time and social media use are not the same. For example, boys spend about the same amount of time on smartphones as girls, but most of their time is spent playing games.

This type of screen time does not seem to be as dangerous as screen time spent on social media.

To help explain this, Haidt makes some interesting distinctions between boys and girls. Boys tend to have more externalizing disorders. They get mad or upset and take it out where everyone can see it.

Girls on the other hand have more internalizing disorders. When they get mad or upset, they internalize the issue and ruminate more on the issue.

The hierarchy of power is also formed differently in boys than in girls. For boys, the hierarchy is built around power but in girls it is relational.

Social media multiplies the ability of girls to damage others socially. This ability to instantly damage others socially has created an environment where everyone’s reputation is always on the line.

Unfortunately, it is not on the line in a consistent and honest way. In the world of social media, anything you do or say can and will be distorted, taken out of context, or used against you.

Girls, especially junior high girls who are in the middle of building their relational hierarchy, must always watch what they say and do.

Mixing this life in a world of social media, where their reputation is always on the line with their propensity for keeping issues in and ruminating on them is a dangerous concoction.

Haidt believes this combination is directly connected to the increase in mental health disorders in girls, but he clearly points out the data connecting social media to mental health disorder is “far from complete”.

There are a growing number of experiments where people give up social media for weeks and their mental health improves, but causation is still being debated.

Still, Haidt is strong in his belief social media either directly or indirectly causes issues in girls. PT – Spending the past 20 years in public education, I agree completely.

To combat this issue, Haidt believes we must attack it as a social coordination problem like preventing underage drinking or smoking.

First, we need to develop societal norms concerning social media usage. Haidt believes the norm should be no one should use social media before high school. Again, he is clear that he is not against screen time in general, just social media usage.

PT – In another interesting interview, Haidt goes into a little deeper explanation for his reasoning here. This explanation addresses brain development and the ability to process all of the issues social media presents.

Second, people in power and authority positions need to follow and promote these norms. It is hard to implement these norms if you are the only parent trying to do it for your children. There is power in numbers.

  • Finally, Haidt recommends a few simple rules parents can follow to help their kids through this challenging period.
  • Two hours a day of screen time total not counting homework.
  • No social media access until high school.
  • Lots of unsupervised free time playing outside in a place that is physically safe.
  • Teach your kids Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to help them with the mental challenges they will face. CBT teaches techniques to help catch the mind in action and intervene before the action escalates.

Call Out Culture

“There is a world of difference between speaking in a group you trust and speaking in one where someone could call you out at any time.”

Our culture is turning into a call out culture. A call out culture is one where people are always on the lookout for things they can call others out on. We no longer give people the benefit of doubt.

We are all human and make mistakes and it is hard to move forward in a culture where there is no tolerance for mistakes and no forgiveness. We need a generosity of spirit to move forward as a society.

A call out culture gives people status for finding the mistakes of others. Often this mistake is a single word. A call out culture also fosters a victim mentality because it awards status for being victimized or for standing up for victims. This is a very dis-empowering process.

Most of society is stable and healthy, but a small subset have gained prestige for calling others out and everyone else is afraid of them.

The dangers of a call out culture include self censoring and avoiding mistakes at all costs.

This is especially hard for teenagers. They never truly express themselves because they are afraid they will be called out for their personal beliefs. They self censor everything they do in order to avoid being called out.

They also avoid mistakes at all costs. A misspoken word or failed effort can lead to great consequences. Because they are playing it safe all of the time, they never have to struggle at anything. This only adds to their future struggles.

Suite of Intellectual Virtues

The suite of intellectual virtues are the skills students need to succeed today and in the future.

What does it mean to be smart? Today’s definition is increasingly about school and test taking. Upper middle class America has become more competitive. School and test scores are the metrics everyone is focusing on.

These things may not really matter in the big picture. We are developing a generation that is really good at taking tests but they are not getting the chance to develop the human skills necessary to improve innovation, creativity, etc and truly succeed at the highest levels.

The skills students need to succeed are judgement, an understanding of how to disagree (do not take or make it personal, use nuance skills, have a generosity of spirit), humility, and believing in yourself without being overconfident.

Bureaucracy is killing judgement because everything is about following policy. To be successful, students need to learn how to use their own judgement to make important decisions. This comes from being allowed to mess up and try again.

Understanding how to disagree is essential for the future success of the person and our society. In today’s world, one of the most used strategies to win an argument is to discredit the other person. The argument is not about the idea, it is about making it a personal attack on whoever is arguing with you.

A valuable skill for all students is to learn nuance. Nuance is the ability to hear both sides of an argument with equal attention. This is not easy to do in a call out culture. In a call out culture, you are on the right side and the other side is wrong. Not only are they wrong, they can never be right.

Haidt states we need the other side to make us smarter. It is only by understanding the other side that we can fully understand our own side.

Finally, when disagreeing with someone, have a generosity of spirit. Give the other side the benefit of doubt.

Other important skills students today need are humility and the ability to believe in themselves without being overconfident.