Rural America May Nurture Tolerance In Kids

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Anyone who watches the news has likely seen coverage in the past year of student protests at one college campus or another in reaction to an invitation extended to a viscerally polarizing speaker.

For the most part, the protests have been by liberals on the campuses outraged by an invite to the likes of Trump presidential campaign architect Steve Bannon, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, or right-wing Fox News commentator Ann Coulter. These protests now extend beyond the campus to other venues where the public gathers.

 What is the cause of such outrage and intolerance toward those whose views are rejected with demonstrations, whose very right to speak is, at times, violently denied?

On his Sunday morning GPS show on CNN, host Fareed Zakaria interviewed a guest who may have the answers. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is the co-author of the book,  “The Coddling of the American Mind. How Good Intentions And Bad Ideas Are Setting Up A Generation For Failure.”

 “You say there is a shift occurring in the way we handle ideas where it is almost like a new moral universe,” Zakaria said to Haidt. Can you explain what you mean?

 “What began happening in 2014 and 2015, professors and students would say something, and somebody would react to one word, and there would be protests, and there would be demands that the person be punished or fired,” Haidt said. “And, it took everyone by surprise. It seemed very strange.”

But that is what America is seeing now from the generation of children born after 1995, Haidt says. These kids were raised in a very protected environment. “They are very sensitive to the power of words,” he said. But that sensitivity is leading to clashes on campuses when students feel wronged, or outraged, by a single word that offends them, or the members of their tribe.

“You speak for an hour, and if someone is offended by one word, they can report you,” Haidt said.

Haidt says this attitude among young people is tied to the way they were raised going back to their childhoods in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“For much of human history, kids would play outside in mixed age groups, and they would learn how to have conflicts, how to make rules and enforce rules. Sometime in the 1980s and 1990s, we freaked out in this country. We got this idea…that if we left our kids outside and there is not an adult literally watching them, they might be abducted.”

Earlier generations of kids by ages 7 and 8 would walk to school, they would play outside, and learn the important skills, the Art of Association as French diplomat and historian of American culture Alexis de Tocqueville called it.  Now in the 2000s you see stories of parents who are arrested because their kids are caught playing in a park unsupervised, Haidt said.

 “What we don’t do is let kids be independent. We don’t let them be outside supervising themselves until they are 13 or 14, in many communities, now,” he said.

Kids are growing up missing a key to their healthy development into adulthood and it’s showing in harmful ways. The rate of anxiety and depression has skyrocketed in America for young people, especially teenage girls. Suicides rate up dramatically in this age group. “This is a catastrophe,” Haidt told Zakaria.

Could this catastrophe also be linked to America’s moving away from an agrarian, small-town culture to one of densely packed cities?

Our community is small enough for kids to take off on their bikes to the swimming pool in the summer without having to be packed up in a car and then watched closely. Our kids ride their bikes or walk to and from school. They go to summer recreation events on their own, walking, riding the city bus, or riding a bike.

Our children can ride their bikes to a neighbor’s house on the other side of town and spend the early evening riding around with friends. You will see kids walking around our neighborhoods talking and laughing.

Our children attend in-town high school sporting events, hang out with their friends, and walk home in the dark together, or even alone. They can go to the theatre on their own.

Our children interact with one another in just the way Haidt says is missing from the experience most children growing up in America today have.

Haidt and co-author First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist contend that intolerance to speech young people disagree with has its “origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education:

 - What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker;

- Always trust your feelings;

- And life is a battle between good people and evil people.

“These three Great Untruths contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures,” the authors write. “Embracing these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. It makes it harder for them to become autonomous adults who are able to navigate the bumpy road of life.”

Their book also looks into how social media, Facebook and Twitter, also play a role in shaping their behavior.

Because our schools, recreational facilities, and stores are all easily accessible, kids aren’t stuck in their homes in suburban neighborhoods reliant on their parents or others to give them rides. Small town, rural life offers children an environment that nurtures independence, the development of associations with kids of different ages, and the ability to hang out without constant adult supervision.

It’s a life, Haidt and Lukianoff, say nurtures lessons that teach tolerance and perspective, rather than oversensitivity to strange and challenging ideas that rattle an underdeveloped view of the world.

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