For human potential, few things are more dangerous than a “safe space.” A flourishing life requires what Nassim Taleb calls “antifragility”: the adaptive capacity to self-improve in response to challenge and adversity.
The commencement address was not very political, yet it was positively dripping with the “safe space” ethos.
When young people are artificially insulated from the trials of life, they are deprived of the opportunity to develop this vital virtue: to become antifragile. The prolonged fragility that results is often used as an excuse by parents for extending dependence, which only prolongs fragility still further.
The campus “safe spaces” that college students have loudly demanded are political in nature. Critics justifiably worry that such safe spaces are danger zones for free speech, open discourse, mutual understanding, and intellectual growth. However, what is far less recognized is that colleges long ago became “safe spaces” in an even more dangerous sense.
This was brought home for me recently when I attended a college graduation. The commencement address, delivered by a student elected to the honor by his classmates, was not very political, yet it was positively dripping with the “safe space” ethos.
Those Who Carried Us
“Where do you come from?” he asked the audience. To illustrate his own answer, he told a story from his childhood. He recalled falling asleep in the family car and waking to find himself cradled in his father’s arms. “My baby tired?” his father cooed while carrying him into the house. After being gently deposited into his bed, he opened his eyes to see his mother’s doting gaze.
The student’s punchline was to reveal that he was 14 years old at the time.
An artful speech opening, to be sure, but a troubling one at the same time.
“Being carried” was the explicit theme of the rest of the young man’s speech. He discussed all the ways in which, just as his father carried him to bed, he and his classmates have been lovingly “carried” by others throughout their lives.
He spoke of all the parents who, that very day, would once again help their graduating children pack their clothes and fold their bedding. He told the story of how one year, he had neglected to pack up his dorm room until the day before he was leaving the country, and how a group of his classmates came to his rescue and packed it up for him.
He related another story of how one of his professors had invited his class to her home for dinner at the end of the semester. He didn’t attend, because he was ashamed of his poor academic performance. His professor nonetheless had a home-cooked meal delivered to him to make him feel better.
The commencement speech contained little-to-no celebration of individual achievement or excellence. Far from it, what was celebrated were such “community” experiences as partying together and submitting papers late together (often both on the same day, he noted).
Is being languid, neglectful, and needy what you want to emphasize on graduation day?
He returned to the original question, “Where do you come from?” and answered that we all come from the communities of people who carry us through life: parents, friends, and teachers.
The crowd was clearly touched, but I was rather appalled. A number of questions sprang to mind.
A group of people who “carry me”: is that a healthy notion of “community”? Surely it is important to be grateful. And “community” is indeed all about mutual service. But “being carried?” Is the condition of an invalid really the best operating metaphor for your life? Is being languid, neglectful, and needy what you want to emphasize on graduation day?
Is gratefulness for “being carried” the only thing you can think to celebrate after four years during the physical and cognitive prime of your life? Are there no teachers to whom you are grateful for inspiring and challenging you to grow and excel? Can you speak only of collective gratitude and say nothing of individual pride? In addition to “where you came from” can you not spare a word for “what you have achieved?”
Judging from the crowd’s reaction, the speaker was well-chosen by his classmates, for he had clearly tapped into the contemporary college zeitgeist. With such a prevailing culture, it is no wonder that so many college graduates suffer a “failure to launch,” moving back in with their parents and remaining financially dependent for years on end.
Safe Space U
What undergirds that culture is the modern college experience itself.
Going off to college is generally considered a rite of passage: the child taking flight and leaving the nest. But in truth, it’s an artificial extension of childhood dependency. While the son or daughter is no longer living at home, mom and dad still generally pay for almost everything. Thus, it marks an expansion of freedom without a commensurate expansion of responsibility. It is no wonder that for so many, college is largely a four-to-five year party. The parental welfare state can be just as debauching and debilitating as the governmental welfare state.
College has become a “safe space” in the sense that it keeps the student safe from self-responsibility. Insulated from the economic demands of life, the student is deprived of the opportunity to develop independence, enterprise, self-discipline, and antifragility.
Neither are these vital traits picked up by the “good students” who buckle down and work hard in college. Instead of learning to navigate the real world, these “high achievers” merely become expert at jumping through artificial hoops set up by authority figures. Instead of self-discipline, they develop “other-discipline” or obedience, just as they did in grade school.
First the mother carries the child in her womb, which is the ultimate safe space.
In the workplace, past “star students” tend to require extensive instruction and routines, and have difficulty creating value on their own initiative. They gravitate toward “safe” careers with a defined set of hoops to jump through (graduate school, certificates, licenses, professional associations, government-imposed standards, etc.). If, because of the economic and technological change that is an unavoidable aspect of life, any of these paths prove not to be “safe” after all, such hoop-jumpers lack the antifragility necessary to adapt, and so often sink into a personal crisis.
The Role of Nurture
These problems are merely an extension of the backward way we have come to approach parenting in general.
As Nathaniel Branden wrote in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:
“The proper aim of parental nurturing is to prepare a child for independent survival as an adult. An infant begins in a condition of total dependency. If his or her upbringing is successful, the young man or woman will have evolved out of that dependency into a self-respecting and self-responsible human being who is able to respond to the challenges of life competently and enthusiastically. He or she will be “self-supporting” – not merely financially, but intellectually and psychologically.
A newborn infant does not yet have a sense of personal identity; there is no awareness of separateness, not, at any rate, as we who are adults experience such awareness. To evolve into selfhood is the primary human task. It is also the primary human challenge, because success is not guaranteed. At any step of the way, the process can be interrupted, frustrated, blocked, or sidetracked, so that the human individual is fragmented, split, alienated, stuck at one level or another of mental or emotional maturity. It is not difficult to observe that most people are stranded somewhere along this path of development. Nonetheless… the central goal of the maturational process is evolution toward autonomy. It is an old and excellent adage that effective parenting consists first of giving a child roots (to grow) and then wings (to fly). The security of a firm base – and the self-confidence one day to leave it.”
Thus, in the upbringing of a child, there is indeed a place for “carrying” and “safe spaces.” Human beings don’t come into this world fully-developed and independently capable. Parents must provide safe spaces and do a lot of carrying early on.
The doctor or midwife “cuts the cord,” which is the first major symbolic step toward the child’s separateness, selfhood, and autonomy.
First the mother carries the child in her womb, which is the ultimate safe space. Being carried, enveloped, sheltered, completely dependent, completely irresponsible, and completely unfree is not only developmentally appropriate but absolutely necessary at that stage. The fetus is not even capable of suckling yet, and so must passively feed through the umbilical cord.
But then birth occurs, and the doctor or midwife “cuts the cord,” which is the first major symbolic step toward the child’s separateness, selfhood, and autonomy. Yet even then, the infant still cannot walk or even crawl, and so must be carried in the arms of his parents.
The cute helplessness of the child, and the heart-rending sounds of her cries, evoke affectionate, nurturing sentiments in the parents. The parental nurture and affection that follows is comforting and delightful to the child.
All of these behaviors and emotional reactions are survival mechanisms. The child has urgent needs, nearly all of which must still be provided for by the parent. For the child, happiness and the absence of distress is, at first, mostly a function of receiving parental nurture and affection (which is an indicator of nurture), since nurture is decisive for survival. The early “safe space” provided by parents is essential for the child’s short- and long-term psychological well-being. Also important for survival is the parent protecting the child from herself: i.e., keeping her from eating harmful things or from crawling into deadly dangers.
The Importance of Action
But, from the beginning, and ever more so as the child matures, there is another source of joy for the child: independent action. This too is ultimately a survival instinct. Such joy is a reflection of the child’s growth toward being able to provide for her own needs.
Such joy in intrinsically-motivated action is one of the two main sources of learning and mental development.
Delight in action begins in infancy. Babies revel in learning how to operate their own bodies. I remember my daughter doing “super-hero” poses as a newborn: repeatedly extending her arms and staring in fascination at her tiny fists. Infants are also tickled by their own vocal improvisations. Eventually such enthusiastic explorations culminate in such developmental milestones as learning to grab and manipulate objects, to crawl, to walk, to speak.
We see the inherent human drive to learn in the way children, from toddlers on up, love to emulate adults, and frequently object to parental “help,” insisting “I want to do it!” or often even “I want to do it by myself!”
Such joy in intrinsically-motivated, independent action is one of the two main sources of lifelong learning and mental development. The other one is experiencing the consequences, both good and bad, of such actions. By enduring minor tumbles, children learn how to stand and walk steadily, and how to maintain due control when they are running about. By enduring social repercussions, children learn how to treat other people respectfully and kindly. For example, they learn a little lesson every time a friend withdraws from play after being mistreated.
Growing up is a process of the child drawing ever more joy and instruction from her own actions, and becoming ever less reliant on parental nurture, affection, and intervention for her happiness and safety.
Some parents cannot countenance such a diminution of their own relative importance to their child, and so react by becoming controlling and intrusive. They constantly nudge and nag the child into preferred behavior. If the child plays a little bit wildly or treats a friend a little bit rudely, the busybody parent swoops in to “correct” the child instead of letting her experience the instructive consequences of such actions. Hyper-restrictive parenting for the sake of “child safety” has become so extreme that it has triggered a backlash in recent years.
This is often only the beginning of years of “safe space” “carrying” that continues straight through college.
The Bane of Schooling
Even for the children of many of the best parents, a dark shadow is soon cast over their ebullient life of self-development: the spectre of school. From kindergarten onward, for the bulk of her waking hours, the child’s self-actualizing and self-educating pursuits are arrested, as she is coercively subjected to obedience training. The busybody parent is joined by an army of busybody teachers and administrators in the work of interfering with the child’s self-development.
In preparation for school, many parents frustrate the self-development of their children even earlier.
Autonomous actions are then often punished as “willful disobedience,” as her life becomes regimented. Teachers force-feed her “nurture” in the form of praise for obedience, and eventually she becomes addicted to such external validation, and is weaned off her intrinsic appetites for independent pursuits. Her growth toward greater autonomy is stunted.
As the child is schooled, she regresses: more of her happiness and instruction again becomes dependent on “nurture” and stems less from the pleasures and lessons of independent action. Instead of joyously reveling in and learning from her own pursuits, she either becomes a “good student” by learning to obsequiously undertake pursuits assigned to her by authority figures, or internalizes the message that she is a weak and/or worthless person (a “bad student”) because she fails to do so. In either case, she forgets the joy of passionate learning through autonomous action.
In preparation for school, many parents frustrate the self-development of their children even earlier, by enrolling them in pre-school, scheduling them for nonstop structured activities, and generally fussing over their behavior and doings.
Let Them Walk
Schooling, from the first day of kindergarten to college graduation day, is thought to be a great promoter of growth and development. Parents think they are doing their children a favor by forcing them to undergo fifteen thousand hours of regimented, artificial “preparation” while insulating them from the freedoms and the trials of real life. But the only true preparation for the freedoms and trials of real life is to gradually, but as quickly as possible, face those freedoms and trials yourself.
By being subjected to school, young people are cotton-balled and stifled in a series of safe spaces, and their spirit of self-reliance and self-exertion is atrophied from being “carried” and held fast by parents and teachers for far too long. For most, college is merely the final stage in a long sequence of imposed stunting situations.
14-year-olds are old enough to walk themselves to bed. In fact, they’re old enough to work. If they were allowed to do so, by the time they reached “college graduation age,” they could very well be capable, experienced, and connected enough to achieve lift-off in their lives: even to fully support themselves. They would also enjoy more self-confidence and self-efficacy, and would thus be free of many of the anxieties that plague so many young people today.
Parents take heed: beyond a certain point, carrying is not caring.