I was relieved to see The Coddling of the American Mind on our reading list. The first I had heard of this book was last Christmas when my brother-in-law showed it to me. He said it was a book about the “ethic of safety”. I knew immediately this book would be helpful to me. We are in the middle of raising two middle schoolers and I was already fairly aware of my tendency to express my love for them through keeping them safe. And I, like many others, have let the concept of safety “creep” to mean more than just seat belts – but to mean safe at all times in all ways.
Haidt and Lukianoff tackle three lies and in doing so, bring up multiple ideas I want to reflect upon – from my kids summer “unsupervised plans” to the limits of civility within a culture of free speech to Scripture-based cognitive behavior therapy and on and on. But this week my mind keeps coming back to my fifth-grade son.
My son is currently struggling some in school. My initial reaction is usually one of over-parenting and a mix of mild guilt and anxiety but this reading is giving me pause. I am stepping back and asking questions. How do we help kids that are not thriving in the classroom without coddling? In what ways have I tried to clear the road for him instead of helping him have what it takes to traverse the road? What are the limits of safetyism and protection? What does healthy performing and achieving look like in upper elementary school? When should a parent intervene and when should they stand on the sideline? What does inadvertent neglect from being too busy to notice look like? What does appropriate, not over-bearing, advocacy look like?
I may sound frustrated (and I always have more questions than answers) but I am reaching some initial conclusions. Here is one: I should be more thoughtful about “the bar” or standards set for distinct areas and ask where sufficiency is enough and meets the standard. For my son, I think math is one of those subjects and it will help all of us to not hold the bar at the A+ level. On the other hand, to lower the bar as a way of protecting him from failure or by “preparing the road” should be resisted in that it works against the truth that children are antifragile. I do not want to perpetuate a mistruth even if my intentions appear loving. He is not fragile. There are values we share as a family that I cannot lower the standard on and my work is to get us all clearer on these.
Secondly, I conclude for the umpteenth hundredth time that comparison is a trap and waste of limited energy resources. It is this insidious temptation, in great part, that pushes us into over-achieving. I can learn from and be inspired by others but must vigilantly guard against the slippery slide into comparing my children to others. A great deal has been written over the centuries of why jealousy and comparison is dangerous. I know its dangers personally because I know it erodes connection.
And finally, an application to my personal research from this parent processing is a caution about the idolization of achievement. There is a place for me that achieving and performing is a beautiful, healthy contribution to the world. I believe that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” And there is a place where I want my achieving and climbing to do and fix more in me than is fair or reasonable. It is here that we must do our hard work of sanctifying our theology of work and rest. Maybe we ask ourselves the question “why” with Jesus and ask the Holy Spirit to help reveal the truth. Why all the pushing and running around? Why do I sometimes want my kids to be brilliant at everything, or at least several things? Why the “resume arms race”? To what end are we racing? The authors quote former Yale English professor Deresiewicz –
The only point of having more is having more than everybody else…nobody needs eleven extracurriculars, either – what purpose does having them actually serve? – unless the other guy has ten. 
My son’s performance at school is important and it does matter. To disregard it or lower the bar does him no favors in the long run, both professionally and psychologically. And pushing him to achieve and do better without a firm foundation of connection is just as dangerous. No, our family is not in Palo Alto’s resume arms race to get our children into Yale or Stanford. But we are not off the hook either; our motivations to achieve do carry consequences.
Right now, our focus is as follows: finish 5th grade strong; play a bunch this summer without supervision; and be thoughtful about our goals for 6th grade.
 Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 24-7.
Ephesians 2:10, English Standard Version
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 188-9.