Monday, November 16, 2015

“Safe Spaces” and the Fear of Growing Up

Protesters at Amherst College. (Twitter via Daily Beast)
On Thursday, November 12, Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts joined the list of institutions that have suffered student protests. According to MassLive, the protest “was sparked by the shared experiences of students who felt discriminated against on campus ..., as well as recent incidents on campus, like the papering-over of ‘Black Lives Matter’ posters with anti-abortion messaging that said ‘All Lives Matter.’”

“The turning point and why it got so large is that multiple students of all sorts of background recognized a feeling of feeling marginalized, or feeling invisible or  feeling isolated in some important way,” [organizer Mercedes] MacAlpine said. “It really took off just being to come together and talk about those experiences.”

What began as a sympathetic sit-in strike in support of the protests at Yale and the University of Missouri took an uglier turn when signs appeared claiming that freedom of speech was the “real victim” at Mizzou. In a response freighted with irony, the protesters demanded that Amherst president Biddy Martin issue a statement saying that Amherst would not tolerate the actions of the students behind the “All Lives Matter” stickers and the “Free Speech” posters, and that said students could be punished and re-educated in “racial and cultural competency”.

Devin Foley, in a post on Intellectual Takeout, asks what’s the matter with kids these days. “At the same time some students are flexing their political muscles (with the help of some professors) at the University of Missouri, Yale, and other schools demanding ‘safe space’, we’re treated to an increasing number of stories about the lack of resilience and overall fragility of many college students.”

This juxtaposition of intolerance and delicacy isn’t as oddly self-contradictory as it appears on the surface. The need for “safe spaces” is individual, while the strong-arm tactics belong to the group: “safety in numbers”, as the saying goes. However, it’s clear more is happening on our campuses than an increase in racial tensions and student political activism. The safety the protesters seek is far less from physical assault than it is from fear itself: more and more students are demanding that colleges rescue them from everything that causes them the least anxiety or unhappiness, from racism and sexism to bad break-ups and failing grades.

Leftist politics has found its home in the children of helicopter parents.

Helicopter Parents

According to Kate Bayless in, “helicopter parenting” was first coined in 1969 by Dr. Haim G. Ginott in Between Parent & Teenager, who reported teens saying their parents would “hover over them like helicopters”. Psychologist Dr. Carolyn Daitsch says helicopter parents “typically take too much responsibility for their children’s experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.” Another psychologist, Dr. Ann Dunnewold, who calls it “overparenting”, explains further, “It means being involved in a child’s life in a way that is overcontrolling, overprotecting, and overperfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting.”

Helicopter parents hover because they worry too much about how negative experiences will damage their children’s future happiness; and, in worrying too much about those experiences, transmit their fears to their children. Sometimes having felt unloved, neglected, or ignored as children themselves, they overcompensate by smothering their children with attention and affirmation. They often harbor an illusion that, to be ideal, a child’s life must be idyllic — s/he must never know anything but love, support, comfort, success, and happiness. They sometimes envision a specific outcome — entry into a particular school (e.g., Harvard or West Point), a career in a particular field (e.g., medicine, professional football) — and try to micromanage the child’s life in such a way that nothing threatens to derail that outcome.

Above all, helicopter parents never let children take risks, real or notional, large or small, without adult supervision. If they can’t hover in person, they delegate others, especially teachers, to hover for them. To develop empathy and self-reliance, children need “alone time”, time away from adults and their interference. By contrast, not only do helicopter parents not allow their children “alone time”, they sometimes choose their children’s friends and games themselves.

Fragile Snowflakes and Manipulative Narcissists

The results? Decreased confidence and self-esteem. Undeveloped coping skills. Increased anxiety. Increased sense of entitlement. Undeveloped life skills. By trying to create and sustain an idyllic childhood, helicopter parents produce, in Foley’s words, “fragile snowflakes and manipulative narcissists”.

Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such illnesses [emphasis mine.—ASL]. The number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. Some are dealing with serious issues, such as psychosis, which typically presents itself in young adulthood, just when students are going off to college. Many others, though, are struggling with what campus counselors say are the usual stresses of college life: bad grades, breakups, being on their own for the first time. And they are putting a strain on counseling centers.

In previous posts ..., I have described the dramatic decline, over the past few decades, in children’s opportunities to play, explore, and pursue their own interests away from adults. Among the consequences … are well-documented increases in anxiety and depression, and decreases in the sense of control of their own lives. We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention. [Bold font mine.—ASL] So now, here’s what we have: Young people, 18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises they need an adult to solve it.

The World is Not a “Safe Space”

Just over six months ago, the New York Times published Judith Shulevitz’s provocative article “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas”, which suggested that “safe spaces” and trigger warnings “infantilize” college students. But the truth is that many arrive already infantilized by their parents, who often don’t understand that the things they do to give their kids the “perfect childhood” also retard their emotional development and (ironically) diminish the happiness the parents are trying to insure.

The millennials’ demand for “safe spaces” comes not just from fear but also from the conviction that they’re entitled to a life without fear — fear of being hated, fear of failing, fear of opposition, fear of uncertainty, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of having their plans (or their parents’ plans) for their life disrupted, fear of risk. However, no such entitlement exists. As the Paris bombings so forcefully remind us, the world is not a “safe space” … not now; not until Christ makes all things new.

Risk is part of life: risk of being hurt, risk of failing, risk of being rejected, risk of having your aspirations thwarted, risk of losing everything you have or love. Once the “Special Snowflakes” — Rod Dreher’s term — leave their campuses, they’ll still have to face the same fears in a real world that offers no safety nets … a world which won’t give them automatic love, automatic inclusion, automatic credence, or automatic success; a world which won’t feel obligated to give a rat’s tuchas about them; a world which will feel only contempt for their whinging and effing: “Suck it up, buttercup.”

Lest someone accuse me of confusing two separate issues, cultural sensitivity versus emotional fragility, I must insist that the issues are inextricably intertwined. If it’s true that some students are using freedom of speech as a pretext to be culturally offensive, it’s just as true that others are using the snowflakes’ fragility as a pretext to shut down criticism of their opinions. The students’ advocacy is stridently intolerant, despite their mantra of inclusivity, because they lack the self-assurance and empathy which make real tolerance possible. They only tolerate what doesn’t threaten their own comfort, while they’re largely unconscious or dismissive of the discomfort they cause others; because their Weltschauungen are entirely self-referential, they see no inconsistency or irony in their rhetoric.

“Helicopter Institutions”

My point isn’t that colleges can’t protect students from everything they fear (although it’s true), but rather that they shouldn’t be expected to. By the time students arrive at their first dorm room, they should already possess the internal resources they need to survive and succeed away from adult supervision — courage, resilience, self-reliance, and self-discipline. Certainly, colleges should provide reasonable protection against physical assault, as well as some reasonable mental-health assistance. They shouldn’t be expected, however, to function as “helicopter institutions”, as delegates and substitutes for overprotective parents.

Moreover, college is supposed to be a place where intellectual combat takes place, where little is taken for granted and little is beyond question, where students develop cognitive muscle by the constant thrust-and-parry of argument. College is supposed to be a place where Truth is aggressively sought, not dictated by an Authority Figure or a central committee. Even in a Catholic institution, which seeks among other things to build students up in the Faith (in theory, at least), their faith is supposed to be strengthened not by rote repetition but by questioning and defending. The “delicate snowflakes” are like boxers who want to throw punches but are scared of being hit.

Aleister from calls the Amherst students “totalitarian thugs”, and complains, “We’ve actually come to a point where students on an American college campus are protesting free speech. It’s like we’re suddenly in Mao’s China.” Discounting the hyperbole, the fact remains that the “safe” college environment the students want — one free from all risk of fear or unhappiness — is not only unrealistic but unhealthy, and would undermine if not defeat the purpose of college. Students should go to college to learn how to think, not what to think.

Moreover, the students’ political convictions, whether ultimately true or false, aren’t entitled to exemption from question or challenge. Sympathy for their fears isn’t the issue; their long-term emotional health is. Contra Eric Posner, colleges and high schools which act as “helicopter institutions”, under pressure from helicopter parents and their children, don’t “[advance] the autonomy of students” so much as they enable the fragile snowflakes’ helplessness and the manipulative narcissists’ pathology. Protect students from physical harassment, by all means; but don’t try to protect them from “scary ideas”.


Again, I’m making no argument against the truth-claims of the protesters’ sociopolitical beliefs; that they are, in many cases, on emotionally shaky ground doesn’t prove that they’re wrong, whether in whole or in part. Rather, I submit that “safe spaces” are no substitute for emotional therapy, that at best they merely kick the can down the road. I submit that colleges aren’t where emotional maturation should start but where it should receive its finishing touches.

College and university administrators and trustees, unfortunately, aren’t noted for their moral courage. Over the last fifty years, they’ve shown a marked tendency to cave in to student and adult pressure; they fear lawsuits and declining tuition income more than they do the ruin of the value of a traditional college education.

Eventually, the market may force a solution, as more resilient and self-reliant students abandon colleges and universities dominated by the “Special Snowflakes” for more conservative, less indulgent institutions or nontraditional venues. Unfortunately, this means that many of the premier colleges from which our cultural leaders are largely drawn, such as Yale, Amherst, and Mizzou, will be forced to become “helicopter institutions” — little more than combination nursemaids and diploma mills for a segment of our youth that wants the privileges of adulthood without the risks or the responsibilities. And all of us will suffer for it.