“Basically remember that your kids are antifragile, not fragile. They have to have some setbacks, some failure, some suffering even, at some point. You can’t protect them from everything and if you do, you’re harming them.”
That’s a little gem from this interview John Haidt, an American professor about his new book. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. He teaches courses on professional responsibility and work, wisdom, and happiness.
The term anti fragile was coined by Nassem Taleb and means –
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better"
John’s quote is getting at the experiences we open our children up to, the media they are exposed to, the conversations we get them involved in.
I remember me and my wife making a conscious decision about turning the radio down when the news came on when our children were young. We dreaded having to explain to a 3-year-old what the ‘rape’ meant. Or for them to be scared after hearing a story about Syria, or children being killed. It’s only in the last year or so that we’ve stopped turning the radio down so much.
My children are 10 and 7. There’s something very important about age appropriateness, about introducing children to concepts they are ready and able to understand. There is a marked difference between a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old in their view of the world and understanding people and behaviour. There’s a vast difference between a 5 and 7-year-old.
Striking the age appropriate balance is a very hard thing to do, especially mentally. Physically it’s much easier. Ours have always been the children in the playground doing things other parents told their kids not to. I know my children have a very good understanding of physical risk and are able to accurately assess their ability against a situation well. This only comes with practice.
Mental appropriateness is trickier. The more I’ve looked into it, the more I’ve come to believe that erring on the side of ‘probably best to wait a few years’ is the right way to play it. Mental development works through a process of constantly layering new concepts and knowledge on top of old. If the very foundation of this stack is shaky because it’s been developed in the wrong order, or tainted with a misunderstanding, then the rest of the stack will be at risk.
It’s hard to stand firm on this ‘probably later’ line though. Our culture coerces us into rushing to get, have and see everything now. We want our children to be better, to do and learn more, so rather than enjoying the time we have with them now, we’re rushing them onto the next thing. Rather than fully exploring and understanding ideas and concepts with them, we want them to get onto the next thing. When the latest Avengers film comes out we want to take them to it, even though it’s rated a twelve and they’re a few years off.
Please don’t misinterpret this. I’m not saying protect them from the harsh realities of the world. Absolutely not. You need to have tough conversations with them about why some people are homeless, other people are violent, we’re lucky living in this part of the world instead of somewhere else, and many of the contradictory, messed up things that are part of the world they live in. Just do it at the right time when they can have conversations about what they’re seeing, instead of them just believing what they see is how the world is.
I remember hearing the comedian and writer Richard Osman respond to the question ‘this is the best thing you will ever see, do you want to see it?’
‘No, because what else will I look at for the rest of my life’. He said.