What Hath Overprotection Wrought?

What happens when a generation grows up being told that they need constant supervision because nothing is safe enough? That they should never encounter a bad grade or mean remark, it’s too wounding? That they didn’t lose, they are the “8th place winner!”?

At least a slice of them become convinced that they are extremely emotionally fragile. They need — they demand — the kind of life-buffers they’ve had since childhood.

Which brings us to this just plain remarkable essay by Judith Shulevitz in yesterday’s New York Times. It begins:

KATHERINE BYRON, a senior at Brown University and a member of its Sexual Assault Task Force, considers it her duty to make Brown a safe place for rape victims, free from anything that might prompt memories of trauma.

So when she heard last fall that a student group had organized a debate about campus sexual assault between Jessica Valenti, the founder of feministing.com, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian, and that Ms. McElroy was likely to criticize the term “rape culture,” Ms. Byron was alarmed. “Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,”she told me. It could be “damaging.”

Ms. Byron and some fellow task force members secured a meeting with administrators. Not long after, Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, announced that the university would hold a simultaneous, competing talk to provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.” Meanwhile, student volunteers put up posters advertising that a “safe space” would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.

The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.

Shulevitz, my newest hero, goes on to describe what she labels “self infantilizing” — the perfect word for young adults who seem eager to stick their fingers in their ears and sing-song “La la la la la” when they hear an idea that causes them distress or tension. What’s more, they seem proud of this fragility, as if it super-sensitivity proves they are, well, super and sensitive. More evolved.

Even though real evolution involves being able to roll with some punches.

I don’t blame parents for creating these kids. I blame a whole culture devoted to overprotecting them from everything from Pop Tart guns, to red ink on homework, to a spat with their best friend. (Parenting magazine famously told parents to stick around when even their school age children have playdates because, “You want to make sure that no one’s feelings get too hurt if there’s a squabble.”)

All that treating kids as if they’re about to fall apart seems to have created exactly that: Kids about to fall apart. Or, really, kids who believe they are about to fall apart. The antidote is to remind us and them what Churchill said:

We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, cross the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.

Or even a Pop Tart. – L.

A culture of self-infantilization seems to have spawned on campus.

A culture of self-infantilization seems to have spawned on campus.

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