In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt pinpoint the “Great Untruths” our kids are being taught, often unintentionally, that are hurting them in pervasive and significant ways.
You can find (these Untruths) on college campuses, in high schools, and in many homes. These untruths are rarely taught explicitly; rather, they are conveyed to different people by the rules, practices, and norms that are imposed on them, often with the best of intentions.
Here are the three Great Untruths:
The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.
The reason they call these “the Great Untruths” instead of merely incorrect statements is because they all transgress three cardinal criteria that ought to be supported by all critically thinking people.
They contradict ancient wisdom; that is, ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures.
They contradict modern psychological research on well-being.
They harm the individuals and communities that embrace them.
In Lukainoff and Haidt’s estimation, these three untruths have been embraced by many of our students today. With more that fifteen years of youth ministry and teaching experience within both high school and college institutions, I cannot help but agree. From my vantage point, these Untruths are are real and are creating and fueling the ongoing and ever-increasing problems (cancel culture, creation of challenge-less “safe places” on college campuses, violent hostility toward ideological opponents, etc.) we’re seeing today.
Thankfully, Lukainoff and Haidt aren’t content to be mere doomsday heralds. They offer very practical ways we can work to reorient – to reteach – our students and bring them out from the swamp they’ve been led into. I appreciate the simplicity and profundity of their solutions to these child-destroying Untruths. I think they provide, at very least, a good framework to use as we analyze our own parenting, discipling, and teaching of students.
We are not saying that the problems facing students … are minor or “all in their heads.” We are saying that what people choose to do in their heads will determine how those real problems affect them. Our argument is ultimately pragmatic, not moralistic: Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you do the opposite of (these Great untruths). That means (1) seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything “feels unsafe”), (2) freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and (3) taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).
To summarize their solutions with a wonderful proverb they quote in the beginning of their book, we, parents, teachers, and pastors, “must prepare our children for the road, not the road for our children.”
That alone, I think, is sufficient to get us thinking a bit more deeply about the unintentional messages we are teaching our children by our policies, programs, conversations, and decisions. There is more to say, but not less. As is usual, sometimes the most damaging things we can leave for the next generation are not the things we teach with our mouths, but the things we assume in our actions. Instead of preparing our students for the hardships life will unapologetically throw their way, we, by our coddling, could possibly making them weaker and unable to face them in a healthy and life-giving way.
Or, if you want to hear one of the authors, speak a bit on the topic, here is a ten minute interview worth checking out.