"I had a tough childhood, so I want to make sure my children have it easy" is a common refrain among many parents. Fair enough. While this philosophy is well-intentioned, it's often poorly executed. The result: overzealous parents with overprotected children. Consequently, we raise kids who do not know how to problem solve effectively or lack coping skills in the face of adversities. The sooner we learn to stop coddling not just our kids but ourselves, the richer our lives will become.
An experiment in extreme schooling
In 2011, Pulitzer-winning journalist Clifford Levy wrote an article in the NY Times titled "My family's experiment in extreme schooling." Levy didn't use the word extreme lightly by any means.
Sent to Moscow as a foreign correspondent by the NY Times, Levy and his wife Julie Dressner agreed (after much deliberation) to fully immerse their three children, aged 4, 7, and 9, in the Russian culture and environment. They enrolled the kids in a progressive school where Russian was the medium of instruction. Everything about the kids' school was as foreign as it could get. To boot, none of the three kids spoke a word of Russian.
The Levys' decision wasn't easy by any means, and the kids faced an uphill battle from the get-go. Levy describes how during a Russian grammar class, his oldest daughter thought that the words on the blackboard looked like hieroglyphics.
After a few difficult months in the new environment, the kids started to evolve and adjust. Spoiler alert: Thrown into the deep end, not only did the kids not sink, they turned out to become excellent swimmers!
Human resilience is underrated
Countless immigrants experience culture and language shocks similar to the ones described above when they move out of their homelands and comfort zones into unfamiliar environments. Sometimes the migration is in search of greener pastures, and at other times it's borne out of necessity (think refugees). But, more often than not, the migrants assimilate into their new cultures well and come out on the other side, not just intact but thriving. Their success is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, something we all have within ourselves—IF—we're willing to take chances.
Sadly, most of us aren't. We are cocooned in our comfort zones and go to great lengths to avoid facing failure or, for that matter, any sort of discomfort. This is especially true when dealing with our kids.
In their book, Parenting with Love and Logic, researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay coined the term helicopter parenting, writing, "They (helicopter parents) hover over and then rescue their children whenever trouble arises."
Even if most of us wouldn't describe ourselves as helicopter parents, we tend to coddle our children. We go out of our way, starting by monitoring homework, checking grades, arguing with their teachers, and intervening to ensure our kids' social lives are entirely comfortable.
While the intention is honorable—giving our children a happy, stress-free childhood—this desire of ours to cushion our kids' every fall (literally and figuratively) does two things: it leaves us exhausted, and it leaves our kids ill-equipped to make decisions or handle the inevitable adversities that'll come their way.
Not to turn this article into a diatribe on parenting—not the least because I lack the expertise—but learning to stop coddling our children is the first step we can take to raise happy, independent, and mentally healthy adults. And then, we can move on to the more significant challenge of learning to stop coddling ourselves.
To stop coddling means one thing: getting outside our comfort zones. And I'll be the first to admit a truth about the comfort zone. It is comfortable, AND there's nothing wrong with wanting to be in it.
To be clear: The comfort zone isn't a bad space
Almost every self-help article has this rallying cry: "Get out of our comfort zone."
But dig a bit deeper, and we can all agree that it's neither recommended, warranted, nor realistic to always keep getting out of our comfort zones.
For starters, the comfort zone is where things work the way we expect them to. It is where we get to mentally (and maybe even physically) relax and be ourselves without needing to stress or worry. After all, there are few things as pleasurable in life as coming back home from a busy, stressful day at work to a loving family, a well-worn couch, and maybe even a tatty remote.
But rinsing and repeating the same formula day after day, month after month, year after year, can make us rigid and fearful. Because then, even the slightest deviation to our schedules or expectations can overwhelm us and put us over the edge.
So, is there a happy medium between being too comfortable and turning into all-out adventure-seekers? And why do even need to seek adventure in the first place?
Are we designed for adventure?
British journalist, author, and runner Adharanand Finn is another proponent of the immersion philosophy to learning.
In his quest to study Japanese running culture, Finn relocated with his wife and kids from the UK to Japan. The couple enrolled their kids in Japanese schools, and Finn went about inserting himself as much as he could into Japanese running teams to know first-hand what the experience is really like.
Finn documents his fascinating journey in his book, The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance, where he says this of the comfort zone:
Most of the time, we exist in a constructed world where everything is designed to keep us comfortable and away from the rawness of life. But we evolved to exist in an environment that would often be tough, difficult, dangerous, and deep down, I think we long for a connection to that ancestral existence.
Finn's assessment of human longing is a subjective opinion. You may or may not agree that we long for tough, dangerous situations. That said, we can certainly agree on the fact that we weren't put on earth to spend our whole lives on the couch watching MASH or Star Trek reruns.
So how do we learn to stop coddling and experience more of life in its true form? To answer this, we need to address why we like being comfortable.
Why we coddle
Our struggle to stop coddling emanates from a sense of fear, an emotion illustrated beautifully by this Buddhist story.
Tigers chase a woman in a jungle. She runs furiously until she finds herself at the edge of a cliff. Then, spotting some vines, she starts to climb down the cliff to avoid the tigers. As she grips the vine harder, she notices a pack of rats gnawing away at the vine below her.
The woman instantly understands her predicament. Caught between the tigers above and the rats below, she realizes her life is literally hanging in jeopardy. At that very moment, her eyes fall upon a shrub full of fresh berries.
Realizing there's nothing she can do about her fears, the woman does the best thing. She reaches for the juicy berries, savoring them one at a time, preferring in those short moments to stay present instead of worrying about the disasters looming all around her.
In short, the woman gains perspective and, in the process, loses, albeit briefly, her fears.
Fear is a reaction to the unknown, and often the unknowable. The opposite of fear is not bravery. It is, instead, the ability to tune out the noise and stay present.
Therefore, the first step to stop coddling is to cultivate mindfulness, i.e., focus on the here and now instead of engaging in endless what-if analyses.
When to stop coddling (and when not to)
There's usually just one large silver lining to discomfort, adversity, or failure: the ability to learn from our mistakes.
It's worth letting your child or even yourself fail if you know there's a beautiful lesson at the end that ensures you'll never make the same blunder again. This alone is enough reason to stop coddling, especially our kids. Understanding we are always not going to be around them, letting them learn lessons for themselves (even if it involves hardships), is the best gift we can bestow upon them.
But, there's a caveat. If the downside is too risky, or if the consequences can be catastrophic or lifelong, then, by all means, coddle away. For instance, letting a teen drive drunk, hoping that the police will intercept and school them, is at best wishful thinking. There's a real chance that the teen in question could seriously injure themselves or others; that alone is reason enough to interfere and nip the problem in its bud.
In short, stop coddling unless the consequences are catastrophic or there is no lesson to be learned.
How to stop coddling
To stop coddling effectively, whether it's your child, or yourself, you must do two things simultaneously.
First, set the bar higher than where it is now—in other words, challenge your child (or yourself) by getting out of your comfort zone. And secondly, extend unwavering support. The two may seem contradictory, but they work in tandem.
Trapeze artists attempt challenging feats only when they know they have a safety net below that will save them in the case of a fall.
Similarly, it's okay to let your kids know that you expect them to aim higher but also that they can always rely on your support (without judgment).
The best teachers of life lessons are usually low-stakes mistakes, preferably others'.
Bubble-wrapping ourselves or our children can only mean one thing—a weakened mental immune system where even the slightest changes to the environment around us are enough to throw us off our game.
Prepare your child for the road, not the road for your child - Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The coddling of the American Mind.