My friend, colleague and hero Peter fibkyadiya
Gray, a psychology professor and author of “Free to Learn” (one of my favorite books!), makes the compelling case we often make here: Kids need a chance to play, explore, have fun, mess up, get mad, recover, and simply live some part of their childhood UNSUPERVISED for them to develop the emotional resilience they will need. You can’t become an adult if you get zero practice being one, thanks to constant oversight and intervention by “real” adults.
I kept trying to figure out which parts of Gray’s essay, which appears on Psychology Today, to excerpt. But it was so good, I only edited out a little bit, and added the boldface. The whole essay is here.
DECLINING STUDENT RESILIENCE: A SERIOUS PROBLEM FOR COLLEGES
A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services to join other faculty and administrators, at the university I’m associated with, for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilience among students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.
Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when in comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices….Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of handholding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college.” Does the first response simply play into and perpetuate students’ neediness and unwillingness to take responsibility? Does the second response create the possibility of serious emotional breakdown, or, who knows, maybe even suicide?
Gray goes on to quote the issues the head of counseling sees looming over the college:
• Less resilient and needy students have shaped the landscape for faculty in that they are expected to do more handholding, lower their academic standards, and not challenge students too much….
• Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.
• Faculty, particularly young faculty members, feel pressured to accede to student wishes lest they get low teacher ratings from their students. Students email about trivial things and expect prompt replies.
• Failure and struggle need to be normalized. Students are very uncomfortable in not being right…We have to normalize being wrong and learning from one’s errors….
• Growth is achieved by striking the right balance between support and challenge. We need to reset the balance point. We have become a “helicopter institution.”
Gray’s college is hardly the only institution worried about this. He quotes the author of a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robin Wilson, who wrote, “Increasingly, students and their parents are asking the personnel at such institutions to be substitute parents. There is also the ever-present threat and reality of lawsuits. When a suicide occurs, or a serious mental breakdown occurs, the institution is often held responsible.”
And so, Gray concludes:
In previous posts (for example, here and here), I have described the dramatic decline, over the past few decades, in children’s opportunities to play, explore, and pursue their own interests away from adults. Among the consequences, I have argued, are well-documented increases in anxiety and depression and decreases in the sense of control of their own lives.
We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention. So now, here’s what we have. Young people,18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises they need an adult to solve it.
…But I don’t blame parents, or certainly not just parents.
Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in the society—victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”
If we want to prepare our kids for college—or for anything else in life!—we have to counter all these social forces. We have to give our children the freedom, which children have always enjoyed in the past, to get away from adults so they can practice being adults, that is, practice taking responsibility for themselves.
So now, when people ask you, “Why risk going Free-Range when you can keep your kids safe?” whip out this essay by Gray. Do we want to make our kids too safe to succeed?
If so, we’re right on target. – L.