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Be the Fire that Wishes for the Wind

Staff Blogger Dave Mapleston

You may have heard of Lenore Skenazy, a New York City mother of two, who earned the moniker “America’s Worst Mom” after reporting in a newspaper column that she had allowed her younger son, then 9, to ride the subway alone in order to get home from the Museum.

What she felt was an important rite of passage and a learning experience, one that boosted her son’s self-esteem and pride, caused significant public backlash when the story was published. Thankfully, the negative feedback galvanised her resolve and cemented her suspicion that too many parents, schools, and colleges were protecting children from the challenges of growing rather than allowing the young to handle obstacles themselves.

I read this story as an anecdote in a book by Greg Lukianoff and Johnathon Haidt called, The Coddling of the American Mind, How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas, are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. The authors, both University Professors were both greatly concerned with a growing trend among University students to not only shy away from opinions and ideas that ran counter their own beliefs, but actively protest the presentation of ideas from public speakers and university texts, on grounds that exposure to ideas could cause harm. Worryingly, many speakers and academics had been hounded relentlessly by students, until Universities disinvited speakers or the academic staff believed to hold controversial views, eventually quit their jobs to escape abuse.

It led the authors to wonder, what had happened in such a short period of time that meant students felt unable to handle exposure to differences of opinion? They were greatly concerned that university students, a social group who had historically demanded freedom of speech, had started to use their voices to suppress rather than engage in debate. Their theories about why this was occurring had several strands but a couple of ideas and take away points spoke loudly to me as a teacher and a parent.

Firstly, they felt that the adage what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger had somehow been reinterpreted to “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” Instincts suggests that this a dangerous idea, as in our heart we know that the up-hill battles and struggles of our youth are the very things that enable us to face the tougher challenges that emerge in adulthood.

Lukianoff and Haidt adopted the term anti-fragility in relation to human psychological development. The notion suggests that much like the development of our immune system, that grow stronger through exposure and subsequent development of antibodies, the mind develops resilience through the facing and overcoming of difficulties. To use another analogy, we should not aim to pave the road for our students, but rather we must prepare them for it. Haidt and Lukianoff describe it as follows:

Systems that are antifragile (like our brain and its cognitive processes) need to encounter unexpected events so that they learn, adapt, and grow, making it more likely uncertainty is successfully navigated. A system that does not encounter unexpected events, on the other hand, can become rigid, weak, and inefficient, because nothing challenges the system to respond vigorously. Thus, parents and teachers should help children learn and grow from facing risks and stressors, not limit their exposure to them.

It is important to note that neither ATC nor the authors of the novel wished to downplay the high stakes nature of modern education, the added social stress created by social media and the internet in general, and the consistent messages about the challenges faced by young people in the increasingly changing and competitive job markets. I do not know how many of our students worry about some or all of these things and so, this is not an essay about a generation gone soft.

I am led to wonder how well we are harnessing the power of challenges to strengthen our students at ATC and form the Men of Courage that we speak of. Are we exposing our students to the right kinds of risks and stressors or do we too often step in and snow plough problems away from their path?

It’s not right for me to answer that question for the school community. I would encourage you to ponder the idea and identify the ways we can embrace the idea of antifragility.

We know our goal is to help create Men of Courage through the following framework. Compassionate, Optimistic, Upstanding, Respectful, Accountable, Grateful, Empowering. We think of each of these character traits as logs on the fire. We want to see young men who do not blow out like a candle in the wind, but individuals who burn bright and flourish when strong winds blow.

It takes great strength to stand up for others and yourself, to be respectful and accountable for your actions. Most of these attributes require us to take the tougher option or do the right thing because it is the right thing not because people are watching. We know our boys are capable of these actions, hence why we set the bar high.

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