The Coddling of the American Mind

date Dec 15, 2020
authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff
reading time 16 mins

Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.

3 Useless and opposite advice for the young people

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. So avoid pain, avoid discomfort, avoid all potentially bad experiences.”
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: “Always trust your feelings. Never question them.”
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: “Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

Why did this happen?

New-media platforms and outlets allow citizens to retreat into self-confirmatory bubbles, where their worst fears about the evils of the other side can be confirmed and amplified by extremists and cyber trolls intent on sowing discord and division.

Life is challenging. Deal with it and learn in college.

The playing field is not level; life is not fair. But college is quite possibly the best environment on earth in which to come face-to-face with people and ideas that are potentially offensive or even downright hostile.

The result of such thinking

We suggested that students were beginning to react to words, books, and visiting speakers with fear and anger because they had been taught to exaggerate danger, use dichotomous (or binary) thinking, amplify their first emotional responses, and engage in a number of other cognitive distortions

Every generation is less resilient in better environments

By the standards of our great-grandparents, nearly all of us are coddled. Each generation tends to see the one after it as weak, whiny, and lacking in resilience.

The solution

That means seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).

The vaccination example

Vaccination uses the same logic. Childhood vaccines make us healthier not by reducing threats in the world (“Ban germs in schools!”) but by exposing children to those threats in small doses, thereby giving children’s immune systems the opportunity to learn how to fend off similar threats in the future.

Safer for children than ever with the right regulations

Between 1978 and 1985, all fifty states passed laws making the use of car seats mandatory for children. Homes and day care centers were childproofed; choking hazards and sharp objects were removed. As a result, death rates for children have plummeted.

But too much safety…

A culture that allows the concept of “safety” to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

If you can get people to examine these beliefs and consider counterevidence, it gives them at least some moments of relief from negative emotions, and if you release them from negative emotions, they become more open to questioning their negative beliefs.

The current state

In 2017, 58% of college students said it is “important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas.” This statement was endorsed by 63% of very liberal students, but it’s a view that is not confined to the left; almost half of very conservative students (45%) endorsed that statement, too.

Tribalism and evolution

The bottom line is that the human mind is prepared for tribalism. Human evolution is not just the story of individuals competing with other individuals within each group; it’s also the story of groups competing with other groups—sometimes violently.

Countering tribalism

If we want to create welcoming, inclusive communities, we should be doing everything we can to turn down the tribalism and turn up the sense of common humanity.

What does training in intersectionality and microaggressions do?

Imagine an entire entering class of college freshmen whose orientation program includes training in the kind of intersectional thinking described above, along with training in spotting microaggressions. By the end of their first week on campus, students have learned to score their own and others’ levels of privilege, identify more distinct identity groups, and see more differences between people.

Features of culture

Eady identifies four features of the culture: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism.

Violence has come to mean nonviolent actions

In just the last few years, the word “violence” has expanded on campus and in some radical political communities beyond campus to cover a multitude of nonviolent actions, including speech that this political faction claims will have a negative impact on members of protected identity groups.

Political witch hunts

How could such an orgy of self-destruction have happened? Bergesen notes that there are three features common to most political witch hunts: they arise very quickly, they involve charges of crimes against the collective, and the offenses that lead to charges are often trivial or fabricated.

Problem with college

First, there’s the problem that many college students have little or no exposure to professors from half of the political spectrum. Many students graduate with an inaccurate understanding of conservatives, politics, and much of the United States… Second, the loss of viewpoint diversity among the faculty means that what students learn about politically controversial topics will often be “left shifted” from the truth.

Why are the kids like this today?

The rise in overprotective or “helicopter” parenting and the decline of free play have negatively affected kids from wealthier families (mostly white and Asian)1 more than kids from working class or poor families.

The result

A set of new ideas about speech, violence, and safety has emerged on the far left in recent years, and the debate on campus is largely a debate within the left, pitting (mostly) older progressives, who generally have an expansive notion of free speech, against (mostly) younger progressives, who are more likely to support some limitations on speech in the name of inclusion.

Social Media

It’s best, then, to think about the entire period from 2007 to roughly 2012 as a brief span in which the social life of the average American teen changed substantially. Social media platforms proliferated, and adolescents began using Twitter (founded in 2006), Tumblr (2007), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011), and a variety of others.

Later adulthood

Activities that are commonly thought to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood are happening later—for example, having a job, driving a car, drinking alcohol, going out on a date, and having sex.

5 activities to recommend

On the other hand, there are five activities that have inverse relationships with depression (meaning that kids who spend more hours per week on these activities show lower rates of depression): sports and other forms of exercise, attending religious services, reading books and other print media, in-person social interactions, and doing homework.

How much screen is ok?

there is enough evidence to support placing time limits on device use (perhaps two hours a day for adolescents, less for younger kids) while limiting or prohibiting the use of platforms that amplify social comparison rather than social connection.

Hostile Attribution Bias

Furthermore, when people are depressed, or when their anxiety sets their threat-response system on high alert, they can succumb to a “hostile attribution bias,” which means that they are more likely to see hostility in benign or even benevolent people, communications, and situations.

Activities with less risk and benifits!

But efforts to protect kids from risk by preventing them from gaining experience—such as walking to school, climbing a tree, or using sharp scissors — are different. Such protections come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment. (Keeping them indoors also raises their risk of obesity.)

Overparenting with close supervision is too much safety!

Parents spending time with their kids is generally a good thing, but too much close supervision and protection can morph into safetyism. Safetyism takes children who are antifragile by nature and turns them into young adults who are more fragile and anxious

Filling up kids’ calendars with adult-guided activities only…

Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.” Parents using this style see their task as cultivating their children’s talents while stimulating the development of their cognitive and social skills. They fill their children’s calendars with adult-guided activities, lessons, and experiences, and they closely monitor what happens in school. They talk with their children a great deal, using reasoning and persuasion, and they hardly ever use physical force or physical punishment.

Natural growth parenting

Lareau calls “natural growth parenting.” Working-class parents tend to believe that children will reach maturity without needing much guidance or interference from adults. Children therefore experience “long stretches of leisure time, child-initiated play, clear boundaries between adults and children, and daily interactions with kin. Parents spend less time talking with their children, and reason with them far less, compared with middle-class parents; they also give more orders and directives, and they sometimes use spanking or physical discipline.

Middle class parents enable overscheduled and overparenting

middle-class iGen (and late Millennial) students were overscheduled and overparented as children.

Severe adversity makes kids weaker

Severe adversity that hits kids early, especially in the absence of secure and loving attachment relationships with adults, does not make them stronger; it makes them weaker.

Fine balance between underparenting vs overparenting

One is to neglect and underprotect them, exposing them early to severe and chronic adversity. This has happened to some of today’s college students, particularly those from working-class or poor families. The other is to overmonitor and overprotect them, denying them the thousands of small challenges, risks, and adversities that they need to face on their own in order to become strong and resilient adults.

Parental binary thinking

She also points out the ways that parents use dichotomous thinking: “If something isn’t 100% safe, it’s dangerous.”

Why free play is actually great for kids

the brain is “expecting” the child to engage in thousands of hours of play—including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of exclusion — in order to develop. Children who are deprived of play are less likely to develop into physically and socially competent teens and adults.

What is Free Play

Peter Gray, a leading researcher of play, defines “free play” as “activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.”

Sad case of kindergarten today

Today, kindergarten is much more structured and sedentary, with children spending more time sitting at their desks and receiving direct instruction in academic subjects—known as the “drill and skill” method of instruction, but that teachers not-so-affectionately call “drill and kill.”

How schools are changing

Opportunities for self-direction, social exploration, and scientific discovery are increasingly lost to direct instruction in the core curriculum, which is often driven by the schools’ focus on preparing students to meet state testing requirements.

Natural activities vs after-school activities

instead of neighborhood children finding one another after school and engaging in free play, children have after-school activities like music lessons, team sports, tutoring, and other structured and supervised activities.

Free play is always voluntary

Of greatest importance in free play is that it is always voluntary; anyone can quit at any time and disrupt the activity, so children must pay close attention to the needs and concerns of others if they want to keep the game going.

What is victimhood culture

They defined a victimhood culture as having three distinct attributes: First, “individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight”; second, they “have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties”; and third, they “seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.”

Preferences in fairness and unfairness

“humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones,” and “when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality.”


When people believe that someone else’s ratio is too high, they are likely to feel resentful toward that person, whose rewards are disproportionate to their contributions.

Fair process can lead to greater acceptance

The social psychologist Tom Tyler is one of the pioneers of research on “procedural justice.” His central finding is that people are much more willing to accept a decision or action, even one that goes against themselves, when they perceive that the process that led to the decision was fair.

Be transparent about how the decision was made

The first is how the decision is being made. This includes whether the decision-makers are doing their best to be objective and neutral and are therefore trustworthy, or whether they have conflicts of interest, prejudices, or other factors that lead them to be biased in favor of a particular person or outcome.

Why debates and compelling arguments are required in a democracy

It is among the most important requirements of a democratic society that it provide a way for people and groups to make new claims about justice. An open democratic society considers such claims, debates them, and then acts on claims that combine compelling arguments with effective political pressure.

Should all instituitions reflect the demographics of gender and ethinicity

More generally, equal-outcomes social justice activists seem to believe that all institutions and occupations should mirror the overall U.S. population: 50% female, roughly 15% African American, 15% Latino, and so on. Any departure from those numbers means that a group is “underrepresented,” and underrepresentation is often taken to be direct evidence of systemic bias or injustice.

The cons of quotas

This is why quotas generally produce such strong backlash: they mandate a violation of procedural justice (people are treated differently based on their race, sex, or some other factor) and distributive justice (rewards are not proportional to inputs) to achieve a specific end-state of equal outcomes.

When ideas might be accepted even if they are not true

Ideas may be accepted not because they are true but because the politically dominant group wants them to be true in order to promote its preferred narrative and preferred set of remedies.

Advice on raising anti-fragile, resilient kids:

  1. Assume that your kids are more capable this month than they were last month.
  2. Resist the urge to jump in and help them when they’re struggling to do things and seem to be doing them the wrong way. Trial and error is a slower but usually better teacher than direct instruction.
  3. Let your kids take more small risks,
  4. Learn about Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids movement, and incorporate her lessons into your family’s life.
  5. Start letting your kids walk places and play outside as soon as you think they are able.
  6. Tell them it’s OK to talk to strangers and ask for help or directions, just never go off with a stranger.
  7. Send your children to an overnight summer camp in the woods for a few weeks—without devices.
  8. Encourage your children to engage in a lot of “productive disagreement.”
  9. Teach children mindfulness.


Homework in the early grades should be minimal. In the early grades, it’s always good to encourage kids to read with their parents and on their own, but homework beyond that should not intrude on playtime or family time.


It is especially important that students practice arguing for positions that oppose their own views. All students would benefit from learning debating techniques and participating in formal debates.

Limit screentime

Limit and Refine Device Time Left to their own devices, as it were, many children would spend most of their free time staring into a screen… Place clear limits on device time. Two hours a day seems to be a reasonable maximum,


Protect your child’s sleep. Getting enough sleep will help your child succeed in school, avoid accidents, and stave off depression, among its many other benefits.

Gap year

High school graduates can spend a year working and learning away from their parents, exploring their interests, developing interpersonal skills, and generally maturing before arriving on campus.

Categories of Distorted Automatic Thoughts

  1. MIND READING: You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
  2. FORTUNE-TELLING: You predict the future negatively: Things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
  3. CATASTROPHIZING: You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
  4. LABELING: You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
  5. DISCOUNTING POSITIVES: You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial.
  6. NEGATIVE FILTERING: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives.
  7. OVERGENERALIZING: You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident.
  8. DICHOTOMOUS THINKING: You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms.
  9. SHOULDS: You interpret events in terms of how things should be, rather than simply focusing on what is.
  10. PERSONALIZING: You attribute a disproportionate amount of the blame to yourself for negative events,
  11. BLAMING: You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself.
  12. REGRET ORIENTATION: You focus on the idea that you could have done better in the past, rather than on what you can do better now.
  13. WHAT IF?: You keep asking a series of questions about “what if”
  14. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.
  15. INABILITY TO DISCONFIRM: You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts.
  16. JUDGMENT FOCUS: You view yourself, others, and events in terms of evaluations as good–bad or superior–inferior, rather than simply describing, accepting, or understanding.