Book Review: "The Coddling of the American Mind" by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff
Society is a reflection of parenting.
Lukianoff, Greg 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. 338 pp. $28.00
One of the funniest memories I have from growing up is how nervous my Mom would get on weekday afternoons, especially in the spring or early fall. We were homeschooled, and the morning had been spent memorizing lines of Dickinson, charting the countries of South America, or pulling our hair out at Algebra.
Aside from the pajamas, there was nothing about our school mornings that really made us different than our public schooled friends. Afternoons were a different story. The local kids arrived home from school a little after 2—3 at the latest. Our homeschooled regimen, though, built in time for free play and activity in the early afternoon. But Mom was always nervous about our going outside. “Don’t go outside until later,” she would say, before offering this priceless line that has been repeated in our family for years: “You’re in pretend school.”
By “pretend school” Mom meant that she didn’t want neighboring families to see a couple kids outside after lunch and assume they just didn’t “do” school. We were some of the only homeschoolers we knew in our rural town (there was a small network of homeschoolers that met occasionally), and Mom felt the pressure to keep up educational appearances. She feared what might happen if someone who knew nothing about our bookish mornings and playful afternoons saw us having a good time before we should be. “Pretend school” very quickly became a humorous euphemism for our self-consciousness as a family that did things a little differently. Even as a kid, I could sense how high the stakes of public parenting can get—and just how tricky it can be to navigate them.
Parenting is arguably one of the last remaining cultural institutions in which we are constantly invited to feel worse about ourselves and yet better than other people. Everyone acknowledges that parenting is difficult, yet many today cannot shake the nagging suspicion that it hasn’t always been this difficult. Modern parents subsist on a steady diet of anxiety, hyper-attentiveness, and regret, a fact that can inferred not only from casual conversation but from mammoth marketing campaigns and “mommy blogs.” The common parenting wisdom of today reflects an extraordinarily intimate relationship between children and their parents, especially for families in the upper-middle class, who are careful to script just about every hour of their children’s lives for maximal “flourishing” (and, if we’re being honest, it’s never too early to start thinking about those college applications). What’s happened to parents today is not unlike what has happened to the “wellness” industry, with its swelling product lines, relentless “studies” that prove You’re Not All Right, and emphasis on increased introspection and self-care.
Yet at the same time that parents have never been offered more reason to think they’re failing, parents themselves have become atomized, and talking honestly about parenting has never been harder or more fraught with peril. Think civility in political discourse is in bad shape right now? Just try posting something on Facebook about the best discipline for an unruly toddler. Discussions of parenting are so laden with emotion and a sense of attack and self-preservation that many moms have had to deactivate their social media accounts just to stay sane.
Something has gone wrong. Parents are stressed, anxious, shamed, and scared. Our kids are overworked, underplayed, depressed, and distracted. And yet such a thick blanket of fear lies over conversations about parenting that we seem unable to do anything but keep scrolling through Instagram or listening to our hundredth TED Talk. The abundance of information and the granting of autonomy to every family to “do it their own way” have not made us better parents, and we know this, if for no other reason than they have not helped us nurture better people. Our fragmented public square bears the scorch marks of a generational parenting failure when it came to iGen, the children who came of age in the late 2000s and who are graduating college today. Just as the broken housing market in 2009 testified to the greed and foolishness of an economy, modern college campus culture testifies to a shortsighted and deeply self-righteous character in our contemporary parenting wisdom.
That last sentence would be my Tweet-sized summary of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. You’ve probably heard that this book is a conservative book written by two conservatives who want to own the libs on campus. Such a description is inaccurate and defensive. But it’s actually not defensive enough. Dismissing Haidt and Lukianoff as right-wing partisans completely misses the truly controversial—and truly transformative—insight of the book. This is not a book about politics, professors, or protests. It’s a book about parenting.