Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Listen to Your Elders, Not the Experts

You don’t need a peer-reviewed study to know it’s a bad idea to give a five-year-old an iPhone.

(George Rudy/Shutterstock)

Several years ago my wife and I attended a party composed mostly of DINK (dual incomes, no kids) urbanites. We acknowledged to a pregnant woman and her husband that we had two children at home under the age of three. The wife, an expectant first-time mother, expressed her grave fears about crying babies, and confessed that she had spent hours searching for all the right videos she could show her newborn on her iPad to entertain or distract. Jokingly, I responded: “Well, what else can one do?” She, misunderstanding, nodded in solemn agreement. 

Call me late to the party, but I just got around to reading Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s 2018 best-seller The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, based on the authors’ viral 2015 Atlantic article. It is a decent book, identifying three terrible ideas popular among young Americans: we are fragile human beings who need to be protected from all pain or discomfort; that we should unequivocally trust our emotions; and that life is a battle between categorically good and evil people. Lukianoff and Haidt even offer some solid practical solutions to address these problems. 


But as I read Coddling of the American Mind, I kept thinking of that nervous millennial couple clutching their electronic devices, trusting that technology and technocratic expertise, and not inherited wisdom, was the key to perfect parenting. Lukianoff and Haidt identify trends among American youth stemming from that parental faith in technology as something that can protect their children from harm, or, heaven forbid, anything that might curb future academic and professional success. 

“On average, eighteen-year-olds today have spent less time unsupervised and have hit fewer developmental milestones on the path to autonomy (such as getting a job or a driver’s license), compared with eighteen-year-olds in previous generations,” they write. Smartphones and social media have in turn dramatically altered the way American children spend their time and the types of physical and social experiences that guide their development (or lack thereof, as the case may be). The results are alarming, to say the least. “Children deprived of free play are likely to be less competent — physically and socially — as adults. They are likely to be less tolerant of risk, and more prone to anxiety disorders.” 

Members of iGen have far higher rates of anxiety and depression, and the suicide rate of adolescent girls has doubled since 2007. Many experts claim frequent use of smartphones and other electronic devices are the primary cause of that increase in mental illness. Add to that paranoid helicopter parenting (“safetyism”) that restricts children’s exposure to danger or ability to “develop their intrinsic antifragility,” and it is little wonder our universities have descended into hotbeds of emotive, activist outrage, prone to violent hysterics when confronted with any perceived threats to students’ well-being.

Lukianoff and Haidt offer many practical solutions for modern parents, most of which are aimed at restraining their protectionist tendencies and letting kids explore the world, encounter ideas different than their own, and even (gasp!) fail. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with most of the authors’ recommendations. But isn’t it an indictment of technocratic, elite America that such a book even had to be written in the first place? Why do we need experts to tell us this? 

“Let your kids take more small risks,” the authors write. “Avoid overprotection.” Ensure more playtime with “less supervision.” Did no GenXers or millennials hear the expressions “you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs” or “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”? My kids traipse around the woods every weekend, catching animals and building forts. My friends and I would wander our neighborhood and surrounding woods for hours, discovering abandoned barns and silos, getting lost, and eventually finding our way home, often bloodied from briars (or each other). It was much the same for my father, as it was for my grandfathers. 


“Encourage your children to engage in a lot of ‘productive disagreement,’” urge Lukianoff and Haidt. “Learning how to give and take criticism without being hurt is an essential life skill.” Does no one remember coming home after school complaining to your mother about a verbal disagreement, being ridiculed, or perhaps even being called a bad word? And what would mothers inevitably respond? “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

Some of the authors’ practical wisdom reflects the fact that people are having fewer kids, and thus placing far more pressure on the select few who remain. “Assume that your kids are more capable this month than they were last month”; “protect your child’s sleep.” As a father of five children under the age of ten, I can tell you that if we didn’t apply these eternal truths of parenting, my wife and I would be more crazed and red-eyed zombies than we already are. As soon as our kids were old enough to vacuum, bathe themselves, or put away dishes, they did. We maintain our kids’ sleep schedules with military-grade efficiency, but that gives us the necessary time to manage the responsibilities of our household and enjoy a little evening rest.

For generations untold, parents knew these basic lessons. They had learned them watching their own parents and grandparents, or they had quickly appreciated their necessity for their own survival. I have a hard time believing young parents didn’t hear or experience any of the guidance suggested by Lukianoff and Haidt. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Our culture is one that increasingly rejects the wisdom of the ancients because of insert your favorite activist complaint: the patriarchy, white supremacy, cisgender norms, heteronormativity, whatever. 

It is not age-old wisdom, but credentialed expertise that engenders our trust nowadays. We take our cue not from grandpa and grandma and their advice of “a little bourbon on the gums,” but from experts in psychology and sociology penning peer-reviewed studies that tell us obvious, common-sense verities. If grumpy grandad tells the rambunctious little ones to get their butts outside before he smacks one of them, we roll our eyes. But if an articulate woman in a lab coat or with “Ph.D.” after her name tells you that your child’s frontal lobe grows faster if he gets at least 1.5 hours of unsupervised time per day, thus increasing his chances of acquiring a scholarship to an academic institution by 15 percent…well!

Failing to heed the wisdom of the past won’t just make us and our children unhappy and anxious. As Lukianoff and Haidt catalog in great detail, these fragile, underdeveloped young adults have taken over and upended many of our nation’s college campuses. And upon graduating, they are wreaking havoc across every American industry they inhabit, as proved by innumerable stories in the years since Coddling was published. “Efforts to protect students by creating bureaucratic means of resolving problems and conflicts can have the unintended consequence of fostering moral dependence, which may reduce students’ ability to resolve conflicts independently both during and after college.” Taylor Lorenz, Chrissy Teigen, or Chelsea Manning, anyone? 

When people hear of my parenting choices, they will often ask if it is because I read The Coddling of the American Mind, as if one requires egg-head academics and experts with charts to prove giving a five-year-old an iPhone is a bad idea. For all the authors’ accurate insights, I’d suspect most people would learn far more following the advice of their elders than reading Lukianoff and Haidt. I remember when my grandmother came to babysit me, and demanded I turn off the television to play cards over tea or get off the computer to take a walk with her. I’m glad I did.