Skenazy: When helicoptered kids go off to college
There’s an idea taking root on college campuses that students cannot be exposed to any ideas, words or phrases that discomfort them in any way, even if that wasn’t anyone’s intent.
That’s why schools are embracing “trigger warnings” — warnings placed at the top of readings that mention a topic that might “trigger” a flashback to some awful episode in a student’s life. One law student at Harvard went so far as to request that the school not teach rape law because hearing about that crime might re-traumatize anyone who lived through it.
The cover story in this month’s Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” discusses triggers and also “microaggressions” — remarks made, even innocently, that are received as blows by the person being addressed. For instance, asking “Where were you born?” of an Asian or Hispanic student could come across as a hint that the speaker does not consider the other student totally American. That’s the “aggression.”
Why are college students being treated as so supremely fragile that they can’t read a book that’s disturbing and must be constantly on the lookout for any remarks or attitudes that could somehow be labeled aggressive?
Because that’s how we have been taught to raise our children these past 20 or 30 years. We’ve made them thin-skinned, super-sensitive and primed to turn to the authorities — parents, teachers and now deans — anytime they feel the slightest bit uncomfortable or aggrieved.
After all, this is the generation we raised with “baby kneepads” to make crawling less painful and helmets to protect them while toddling. Somehow we became utterly convinced that our kids bruise so easily and permanently that special precautions must be taken — precautions never needed until now. That message grew up into trigger warnings: Watch out, kids! You are too easily hurt.
This is also the generation that grew up getting trophies for eighth place. My son got one in a league with nine teams. With that trophy came the same message: Kids, you are too fragile to handle the micro-misery of losing.
And this is also the generation of students who grew up surrounded by posters at school exhorting them to be on the lookout for bullying. When bullying is the thing you look for, bullying is what you see. The bullying of third grade becomes the microaggression on campus.
Teaching our kids that they are as helpless and vulnerable as infants has not, of course, helped them at all — not in terms of their education and not in terms of their psychological health. A survey of the American College Health Association found that 54 percent of college students surveyed said they had felt “overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months — up from 49 percent just five years before.
Naturally you are going to feel anxious if you’ve been told from infancy that basic locomotion is dangerous, losing is unendurable, classmates are out to get you and you are not equipped to stand up for yourself.
And it’s not that I blame us parents! I blame a society that keeps telling us — through products, programs and even laws — that our kids are in constant danger and so we must make them safer, safer, safer. For goodness’ sake, I got a press release last week from the Environmental Working Group asking restaurants to pledge to give kids only “asbestos-free” crayons — as if a tiny amount of exposure to a tiny amount of asbestos in a crayon while waiting for the chicken nuggets would scar their lungs for a lifetime. Our society sees every “micro” as “macro.”
In our loving but misdirected desire to keep our kids super-safe, we have succeeded in making them super-sensitive instead. Happy is the child, 8 or 18, who is not constantly afraid and aggrieved.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”