Promoting Antifragility in Education

Written by Head of Upper School, Michele Bett

In 2008, the New York writer Lenore Skenazy found herself at the centre of a media storm, but she probably only had herself to blame. She had published an article in the New York Sunnewspaper and then had been interviewed on national television, all in the effort to explain her seemingly novel approach to parenting. The results were not quite what she anticipated, for before long she was widely decried as “America’s Worst Mom.”

What was Skenazy’s offense? She had let her 9-year old son ride the New York subway by himself. Her son had wanted to do this for some time, so she took him to a downtown Metro station and then gave him a ticket, a map, some money, and clear instructions how to get home. Forty-five minutes later, right on time, he reached his house, delighted with his experience. His happy mother wrote about it in the newspaper. But after hearing the story, the country was shocked.

Mr Kidd, our Headmaster, and several Ridley administrators learned more of Leonore Skenazy’s fall from grace at the International Positive Psychology Conference in Melbourne, Australia last month, where one of  the keynote speakers was Jonathan Haidt, author of several books including his most recent The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.Along with other educators, researchers, psychologists, counselors and academics from across the world, we learned  more about the new word at the conference: “antifragility.”

The concept of antifragility is not really new; in fact, it is very common in the field of health care and in our understanding of the human immune system. The idea is that some things, like china teacups, are naturally fragile; others, like plastic teacups, are naturally resilient; but still others, and especially complex systems like human beings, are antifragile: they requirestressors and challenges to learn, adapt, and grow.

According to Haidt, understanding about antifragility is important to educators and parents. Children need to develop their own interests, learn how to make decisions and solve problems, cultivate their ability to regulate their emotions, and discover how to get along with others and experience joy. Over-scheduled children surrounded by risk-averse adults are less likely to acquire these important life skills.

As it happens, trying to eliminate all risks from children’s lives might even be dangerous. There may be a psychological analog to the hygiene hypothesis proposed to explain the dramatic recent increase in allergies. In other words, by codling our children and over-protecting them we may be denying them the real opportunity to learn from their mistakes. 

At the Positive Psychology Conference in Melbourne, Haidt explained  that positive child development thrives under conditions of unsupervised free play, autonomy, risk, and even failure. Short-term stress is not to be avoided – it is essential for proper growth. Negative experiences provide rapid learning and strengthening. Those young people who are prepared for the failures they will encounter in life will have gained the resilience and mental fortitude to succeed. This is summed up in the saying: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”

Haidt claimed that the generation born at the beginning of the 21stcentury might well be the loneliest ever because so many children spend so much time indoors. They may be digitally connected, but this electronic connectivity does not nurture authentic and enduring relationships. When children go outside, climb trees, play with friends, swim lakes and enjoy nature, they are augmenting their well-being. Haidt’s advice to parents is to get your children out of their bedrooms or they may  just end up living in your basements!

Of course, giving children opportunities to participate in activities like hockey camp, basketball practice and piano lessons is important; but Haidt wants us also to give children the freedom to develop their curiosity, exercise their creativity and just marvel at the wonderful world around them. He wants us to give our children the precious gift of un-sanitised, un-structured time that will nurture their imagination and wonder.

Lenore Skenazy responded to her own negative experiences with America’s media by starting a blog called Free-Range Kidsand a non-profit called Let Grow, where she calls out over-protectionism and offers advice for parents wanting to raise healthy, happy children. A lot of parents today, Skenazy says, “ see no difference between letting their kids walk to school and letting them walk through a firing range”. Any risk is seen as too much risk. But, as she points out, we parents have to realise that the greatest risk of all just might be trying to raise a child who never encounters choice or independence. 

Our long summer break  is not quite over, and there’s still opportunity for us to cultivate our very own free range Ridleians. Although high attainment is certainly one of the elements that account for success at Ridley College, there’s more. At Ridley, we celebrate and emphasise positive emotions, engagement, relationships, and meaning in addition to grades and exam results. Under the leadership of Mr Kidd, Ridley’s central mission has been to help young people to discover what it takes to lead a flourishing life, not just in this community but also beyond our gates. Our aim is to prepare all our children for the road.