The Myth of the Fragile Child
In 2001, the Girl Scouts of America introduced a “Stress Less Badge” for girls aged eight to eleven. It featured an embroidered hammock suspended from two green trees. According to the Junior Girl Scout Badge Book, girls earn the award by practicing “focused breathing,” creating a personal “stress less kit,” or keeping a “feelings diary.” Burning ocean-scented candles, listening to “Sounds of the Rain Forest,” even exchanging foot massages are also ways to garner points.1
Explaining the need for the Stress Less Badge to the New York Times, a psychologist from the Girl Scout Research Institute said that studies show “how stressed girls are today.”2 Earning an antistress badge, however, can itself be stressful. The Times reported that tension increased in Brownie Troop 459 in Sunnyvale, California, when the girls attempted to make “antianxiety squeeze balls out of balloons and Play-Doh.” According to Lindsay, one of the Brownies, “The Play-Doh was too oily and disintegrated the balloon. It was very stressful.”3
The psychologist who worried about Lindsay and her fellow Girls Scouts is not alone. Anxiety over the mental equanimity of American children is at an all-time high. In May of 2002, the principal of Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica, California, sent a newsletter to parents informing them that children could no longer play tag during the lunch recess. As she explained, “The running part of this activity is healthy and encouraged; however, in this game, there is a ‘victim’ or ‘It,’ which creates a self-esteem issue.”4
School districts in Texas, Maryland, New York, and Virginia “have banned, limited, or discouraged” dodgeball.5 “Anytime you throw an object at somebody,” said an elementary school coach in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “it creates an environment of retaliation and resentment.”6 Coaches who permit children to play dodgeball “should be fired immediately,” according to the physical education chairman at Central High School in Naperville, Illinois.7
In response to this attack on dodgeball, Rick Reilly, the Sports Illustrated columnist, chided parents who want “their Ambers and their Alexanders to grow up in a cozy womb of noncompetition.”8 Reilly responds to educators like the Naperville chairman of physical education by saying, “You mean there’s weak in the world? There’s strong? Of course there is, and dodgeball is one of the first opportunities in life to figure out which one you are and how you’re going to deal with it.”
Reilly’s words may resonate comfortably with many of his readers, and with most children as well; but progressive educators tend to dismiss his reaction as just another expression of a benighted opposition to the changes needed if education is to become truly caring and sensitive. This movement against stressful games gained momentum after the publication of an article by Neil Williams, professor of physical education at Eastern Connecticut State College, in a journal sponsored by the National Association for Sports and Physical Education, which represents nearly eighteen thousand gym teachers and physical education professors. In the article, Williams consigned games such as Red Rover, relay races, and musical chairs to “the Hall of Shame.”9 Why? Because the games are based on removing the weakest links. Presumably, this undercuts children’s emotional development and erodes their self-esteem.
In a follow-up article, Williams also pointed to a sinister aspect of Simon Says. “The major problem,” he wrote, “is that the teacher is doing his or her best to deceive and entrap students.”10 He added that psychologically this game is the equivalent of teachers demonstrating the perils of electricity to students “by jolting them with an electric current if they touch the wrong button.” The new therapeutic sensibility rejects almost all forms of competition in favor of a gentle and nurturing climate of cooperation.
Which games, then, are safe and affirming? Some professionals in physical education advocate activities in which children compete only with themselves such as juggling, unicycling, pogo sticking, and even “learning to . . . manipulate wheelchairs with ease.”11 In a game like juggling there is no threat of elimination. But experts warn teachers to be judicious in their choice of juggling objects. A former member of The President’s Council on Youth Fitness and Sports suggests using silken scarves rather than, say, uncooperative tennis balls that lead to frustration and anxiety. “Scarves,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “are soft, nonthreatening, and float down slowly.”12 As the head of a middle school physical education program in Van Nuys, California, points out, juggling scarves “lessens performance anxiety and boosts self-esteem.”13
Writer John Leo, like Reilly, satirized the gentle-juggling culture by proposing a stress-free version of musical chairs:
Why not make sure each child has a guaranteed seat for musical chairs? With proper seating, the source of tension is removed. Children can just relax, enjoy the music and talk about the positive feelings that come from being included.14
Leo was kidding. But the authors of a popular 1998 government-financed antibullying curriculum guide called Quit It! were not.15 One exercise intended for kindergarten through third grade instructs teachers on how to introduce children to a new way to play tag:
Before going outside to play, talk about how students feel when playing a game of tag. Do they like to be chased? Do they like to do the chasing? How does it feel to be tagged out? Get their ideas about other ways the game might be played.16
After students share their fears and apprehensions about tag, teachers may introduce them to a nonthreatening alternative called “Circle of Friends” where “nobody is ever ‘out.’ ” If students become overexcited or angry while playing Circle of Friends, the guide recommends using stress-reducing exercises to “help the transition from active play to focused work.”17 Reading through Quit It!, you have to remind yourself that it is not satire, nor is it intended for emotionally disturbed children. It is intended for normal five- to seven-year-olds in our nation’s schools.
Our Sensitive and Vulnerable Youth
But is overprotectiveness really such a bad thing? Sooner or later children will face stressful situations, disappointments, and threats to their self-esteem. Why not shield them from the inevitable as long as possible? The answer is that overprotected kids do not flourish. To treat them as combustible bundles of frayed nerves does them no favors. Instead it deprives them of what they need.
Children must have independent, competitive rough-and-tumble play. Not only do they enjoy it, it is part of their normal development. Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Minnesota, defines rough-and-tumble play as behavior that includes “laughing, running, smiling, jumping . . . wrestling, play fighting, chasing, and fleeing.”18 Such play, he says, brings children together, it makes them happy and it promotes healthy socialization. Children who are adept at rough play also “tend to be liked and to be good social problem solvers.”19 Commenting on the recent moves to ban competitive zero-sum playground games like tag, Pelligrini told us, “It is ridiculous . . . even squirrels play chase.”
The zealous protectiveness is not confined to the playground. In her eye-opening book The Language Police, Diane Ravitch shows how a once-commendable program aimed at making classroom materials less sexist and racist has morphed into a powerful censorship regime.20 “Sensitivity and bias” committees, residing in publishing houses, state governments, test-writing companies, and in groups like the American Psychological Association, now police textbooks and other classroom materials, scouring them for any reference or assertion that could possibly make some young reader feel upset, insecure, or shortchanged in life.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Ravitch to an honorary education committee charged with developing national achievement tests. The Department of Education had awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to Riverside Publishing, a major testing company and a subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin, to compose the exam. Ravitch and her committee were there to provide oversight.
As part of the process, the Riverside test developers sent Ravitch and her fellow committee members, mostly veteran teachers, several sample reading selections. The committee reviewed them carefully and selected the ones they considered the most lucid, engaging, and appropriate for fourth-grade test takers.
Congress eventually abandoned the idea of national tests. However, Ravitch learned that several of the passages she and her colleagues had selected had not survived the scrutiny of the Riverside censors.
For example, two of the selections that got high marks from Ravitch and her colleagues were about peanuts. Readers learned that they were a healthy snack and had first been cultivated by South American Indians and then, after the Spanish conquest, were imported into Europe. The passage explained how peanuts became important in the United States, where they were planted and cultivated by African slaves. It told of George Washington Carver, the black inventor and scientist, who found many new uses for peanuts.
The Riverside sensitivity monitors had a field day. First of all, they said, peanuts are not a healthy snack for all children. Some are allergic. According to Ravitch, “The reviewers apparently assumed that a fourth-grade student who was allergic to peanuts might get distracted if he or she encountered a test question that did not acknowledge the dangers of peanuts.”21
The panel was also unhappy that the reading spoke of the Spaniards having “defeated” the South American tribes. Its members did not question the accuracy of the claim, but Ravitch surmises, “They must have concluded that these facts would hurt someone’s feelings.”22 Perhaps they thought that some child of South American Indian descent who came upon this information would feel slighted, and so suffer a disadvantage in taking the test.
Ravitch’s group had especially liked a story about a decaying tree stump on the forest floor and how it becomes home to an immense variety of plants, insects, birds, and animals. The passage compared the stump to a bustling apartment complex. Ravitch and the other committee members enjoyed its charm and verve. It also taught children about a fascinating ecology. But the twenty sensitivity panelists at Riverside voted unanimously against it: “Youngsters who have grown up in a housing project may be distracted by similarities to their own living conditions. An emotional response may be triggered.”23
Ravitch presents clear evidence that our schools are in the grip of powerful sensitivity censors who appear to be completely lacking in good judgment and are accountable to no one but themselves. She could find no evidence that sensitivity censorship of school materials helps children. On the contrary, the abridged texts are enervating. “How boring,” she says, “for students to be restricted only to stories that flatter their self-esteem or that purge complexity and unpleasant reality from history and current events.”24
The idea that kids can cope with only the blandest of stories is preposterous. Staples like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Hansel and Gretel” delight children despite (or because of) their ghoulish aspects. Kids love to hear ghost stories on Halloween and to ride roller coasters, screaming as they hurtle down the inclines. Therapeutic protectiveness is like putting blinders on children before taking them for a walk through a vibrant countryside.
Excessive concern over imagined harms can hinder children’s natural development. Moreover, in seeking to solve nonexistent problems, it distracts teachers from focusing on their true mission—to educate children and to prepare them to be effective adults. Commenting on Ravitch’s findings, Jonathan Yardley, columnist and book critic at the Washington Post, wrote, “A child with a rare disease may have to be put in a bubble, but putting the entire American system of elementary and secondary education into one borders on insanity.”25
Many American teachers seem to believe children must be spared even the mildest criticism. Kevin Miller, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has studied differences between Chinese and American pedagogy. In one of his videotapes, a group of children in a math class in China are learning about place values. The teacher asks a boy to make the number 14 using one bundle of ten sticks along with some single sticks, and the child uses only the bundle. The teacher then asks the class, in a calm, noncensorious tone, “Who can tell me what is wrong with this?” When Miller shows the video to American teachers, they are taken aback. They find it surprising to see an instructor being so openly critical of a student’s performance. “Most of the teachers in training we’ve shown this to express the worry that this could be damaging to children’s self-esteem,” Miller reports.26 Even the minority of American student teachers who don’t disapprove of the practice agree that the practice of giving students explicit feedback in public “contravenes what we do in the U.S.”
Rossella Santagata, a research psychologist at LessonLab in Santa Monica, California, has studied how American and Italian teachers differ in their reactions to students’ mistakes. Italian teachers are very direct: they have no qualms about telling students their answer is wrong. In so doing, they violate all of the sensitivity standards that prevail in the United States. Santagata has a videotape of a typical exchange between an American math teacher and a student. An eighth grader named Steve is supposed to give the prime factors of the number 34; instead he lists all the factors. It is not easy for the teacher to be affirmative about Steve’s answer. But she finds a way, “Okay. Now Steve you’re exactly right that those are all factors. Prime factorization means that you only list the numbers that are prime. So can you modify your answer to make it all only prime numbers?” (Emphasis in original.)27
Santagata told us that when she shows this exchange to audiences of Italian researchers, they find the teachers strained response (“exactly right”) hysterically funny. By contrast, American researchers see nothing unusual or amusing—because, as Santagata says, “Such reactions are normal.”28
Even college students are not exempt from this new solicitude. Students in universities like Columbia, Duke, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Kansas, and the University of Buffalo can visit “stress-free zones” or attend “stress buster” workshops that include activities and palliatives once limited to young children or mental patients.29 Wisconsin offers anxious undergraduates a safe space during finals where they can partake in a “napping event,” get a backrub, or draw pictures with a box of crayolas.30 Alas, not all students take the mental health offerings in the right spirit. Duke University provides massage therapy to tense undergraduates; but the facilitator found it necessary to post a warning on the Web site: “No ‘hooking up’ with a partner at the program.”31
Copyright © 2005 by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel. All rights reserved.