When I was a youngster in grade school, I fondly remember winter days at school. We had recess and we went outside despite the weather (except in rain) and even if there was that crazy white stuff on the ground. In fact, it was more fun because we built forts and snowmen and snowballs that we happily tossed at one another. Today, school children are not permitted outside if the temperature drops below 32 degrees and if the temperature is higher than 32, there better not be snow on the ground because that will keep you inside too.
It is hard to determine when America started turning out veal rather than children who would grow into functional adults who would, in college, not be offended by words or a Halloween costume. My guess is it started in the 1980’s when they started printing pictures of kids on milk cartons. There may have been other reasons, among them changes in parenting, new academic standards, and increased regulation that added to the statistically unwarranted fears of parents, not to mention the a litigious society that made personal injury lawyers rich. Granted, missing children are not something to scoff at, but statistics prove that a child is more likely to be killed in a car accident than they are to be abducted and show up on a milk carton.
This over-emphasis on safety has had deleterious effects that were furthered by other changing norms. Mainly, the lack of free time and play among children of all ages has led to the inability to explore and resolve conflicts on their own. When not running to the teacher or parent to resolve a difference with a peer, they often are now taught to report their offended feelings to some campus “response team” to investigate a potential “hate crime, speech, or harassment.”
Today on campuses, it matters not a bit what someone meant to say, or even what is said. It is all in the subjective interpretation of the listener. If the listener feels offended, that is enough to set off a chain of events, administrative mothering and lectures on “microagression.” What you have instead are students and professors walking on eggshells which is clearly not conducive to the goals of higher education. Today’s college students cannot handle alternative views because they have been taught from an early age that their feelings are what matters.
Look at school bully policies today. Bullies have been around since there were schools. And perhaps it got out of hand at times and perhaps if there were responsible adults and teachers around, it would not have gotten out of hand. But today, words and even looks are considered bullying as the “victim” runs and reports the action to a teacher. In high school, I was bullied- physically and verbally. It ended when I pinned the bully to the floor of the gym locker room and punched him in the head before the gym teacher pulled me off with a wink and a nod. I was not bullied the remainder of high school by anyone.
And it is the same way with childhood failure. Today, we reward losers with trophies. Not everything a child does deserves applause and a trophy, especially mere participation. By doing so, we do them a disservice- finding out that they may not be good at something. We are telling the losers that we do not think they can cope with the fact they did not win, so we appease those feelings with a trophy or certificate. Everyone wants to see their child happy, but true happiness is teaching resilience, not back patting, high-fiving and rewarding losing.
In an Illinois town, a young boy was reported for using a hatchet to chop wood- fallen branches at that. The police responded and confiscated the hatchet. The boy said he was gathering wood to build a fort with his friends. He was remanded to his parents without the hatchet which was kept for safekeeping by the police. In some school districts, playing on grass is now forbidden for school children; it must be wood chips or that rubbery material. The Boulder, Colorado library considered not allowing any child into the library under the age of 12. Why? They might “encounter hazards like chairs, steps and shelves…” A science fair banned “chemicals, plants in soil, or any organism (living or dead).” In a district in Washington, all swings have been removed from school playgrounds because the state deemed them unsafe. Ride by any school playground today and chances are you will not see a merry-go-round or see-saw and you’d be lucky to find swings.
And most alarmingly, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has warned parks of “tripping hazards like rocks and tree stumps and roots.” The problem is that for the vast bulk of human history, children learn by doing. You trip over a tree stump in a park, you learn to look down. Instead of preparing the child for the path, we are doing the opposite- preparing the path for the child.
Incidentally, there are societal ramifications for not tripping over a stump or rock in a park. One study found that today’s average 19-year-old is as sedentary as a 65-year-old person. And let us not forget how Halloween has now become some sinister event. In one town in Georgia, trick or treaters must be under the age of 12 and in costume and accompanied by someone over the age of 21. If you have another sibling between 12 and 20, they cannot accompany their younger sibling. Schools and whole communities now hold “trunks and treats” where candy is distributed from the trunks of assembled cars instead of going house to house. Schools send home letters disallowing certain costumes- anything that could be considered “scary,” or God forbid, clown costumes. Is it any wonder that college administrators today generate lists of appropriate and inappropriate costumes for college students?
We have created a culture of children who are averse to and protected from risk, failure and hurt feelings. They are ill-prepared for the rigors of adulthood and college where they will face risk, failure and hurt feelings. On college campuses today, words and ideas have become traumatizing factors. Mole hills have been built into imaginary mountains. They are as coddled as adults as they were as children.
The best solution to the problem is unsupervised, unadulterated play. The little ones want to be the big kids so instead of crying because they strike out and get a trophy regardless, maybe they will try just a little harder next time. That is called maturity and perseverance. Perhaps, the older kids will learn to tackle more gently or throw the ball softer. That is called empathy. They can make their own rules and resolve their own problems. That is called participatory democracy. Learning to resolve differences on one’s own is a skill lacking on today’s campuses and it has its roots in our culture where children are no longer allowed to be children; they are the equivalent of human veal. To quote Nietzsche: “That which does not kill you, makes you stronger.”