Beginning in the 1980s, American childhood changed. For a variety of reasons, including new academic expectations and a heightened fear of abduction (missing kids on milk cartons made it feel as if this exceedingly rare crime was rampant), children largely lost the experience of having large swaths of unsupervised time to play, explore, and resolve conflicts on their own.
This has left them more easily hurt, and more dependent. They have been taught to seek authority figures to solve their problems and shield them from discomfort, rather than working things out for themselves — a condition sociologists call “moral dependency.””
These changes pose a threat to the kind of open-mindedness and flexibility young people need to thrive at college and indeed, that society needs in its citizens. If students arrive on campus unaccustomed to frustration and misunderstandings, we can expect them to be hypersensitive. And if they go on to become Americans daunted by civil discourse, we can expect an ever more polarized country. The choices become to "walk on eggshells" for fear of offending anyone, or to simply to give up on free inquiry and open debate — the active ingredients of a healthy democracy.
At Let Grow, we see this retreat from engagement beginning as early as grammar school, with kids constantly reminded they might accidentally hurt each other with the wrong words. What happens when children are taught that words are literally violence? When today’s 8-year-olds become the 18-year-olds starting college, will they still view free speech as worthy of protecting? As adults, how likely are they to consider the First Amendment essential if they start learning in fifth grade that you’re forbidden to say—or even think—certain things, especially at school?
These protections grew out of good intentions, of course. But the people recommending and, eventually, enforcing them did not realize that, as Prof. Peter Gray has noted: Kids need thousands of "scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of exclusion, in order to develop...into socially competent adults."
Parents, teachers, professors and psychologists are finding it hard to avoid the conclusion that society’s overprotection of children and the growing unwillingness of young people to engage in civil discourse are two sides of the same coin.
To cherish free speech – to cherish freedom itself – children have to grow up with some.
Let Grow is committed to fostering the kind of childhood that makes kids open, resilient, curious and ready to engage with people and ideas from across the board.