Beyond Resilience: Fostering Anti-Fragile Children

Wanting our children to be resilient is too low a goal, they need to be more.

Posted Feb 12, 2019

Steve Baskin
Starting a 500 foot zipline
Source: Steve Baskin

The most important job any of us will ever have is raising our children.  We parents embrace this opportunity with joy, but also worry. Often parents focus on two questions:

  • “What is the best way to raise a wonderful human?” We want to prepare our children to be contributing, caring, successful individuals.
  • “How can I keep my child safe?”  We also want to keep our children protected from harm and danger.

Both of these goals are critical, but I often see parents obsess on the second question in ways that harm the first.  Our desire to protect our children from harm and danger often grows into a compulsion to protect them from discomfort or disappointment.  Ironically, our efforts to protect our children can actually harm them. Why is that? Because children are “anti-fragile”.

Originally coined by Nassim Taleb, I have become fascinated with a concept of “anti-fragility.”  Here is a simple explanation:

  • Some things are fragile, like a crystal glass. If you expose it to stress (drop it), it will break.
  • Other things are resilient, like a plastic cup. If you expose it to stress, it remains the same.
  • But a small subset of things are anti-fragile.  When exposed to stress, they become stronger.  In fact, they cannot function properly unless stressed or challenged.  One example is our immune systems: children that are exposed to germs early on have stronger and more robust immune systems later.  Bones are anti-fragile.  Astronauts who go into zero-gravity situations return with weaker, more brittle bones because they need the stress of gravity to remain strong.  

After working with children for almost three decades, I can strong assert that humans, especially children, are anti-fragile.  They do best when exposed to challenges, disappointments and even the occasional fight or insult.  Please let me be clear, children must be protected from true bullies or real dangers (they should not play with chainsaws).  But we do not help them by protecting them from any social awkwardness or conflict. 

I remember having fights with my best friends that often involved yelling, insulting and even some occasional pushing.  When I told my mother, she responded quite wisely, “I am sorry to hear that. I am sure you are frustrated and sad. But I know you can work this out.  Let me know how you deal with it.”

In some cases, I realized I needed to apologize.  Other times, I learned I deserved an apology and waited for it.  More often than not, we would decide it was better to have someone to play with than harbor a lingering argument, so we would come to some reasonable accommodation. 

The skills I learned in these low-stakes conflicts have served me well as an adult. But if we deny children these challenges, we do not allow their anti-fragility to emerge.  In fact, they might not even be resilient. Our efforts to protect them can result in them becoming actually fragile. 

Recent research (well summarized by Dr. Jean Twenge) shows that children are substantially more anxious, depressed and prone to self-harm than 10 years ago.  She speculates that social media is the major contributor. While I completely agree that social media can be harmful to children (especially girls), it is not the only cause. Certain parenting styles seem to be a major contributor as well. At our summer camps, we have noticed increases in fragility over the past decade, even in children who do not yet have a mobile phone or use any social media.

In reading about these trends and making my own observations at camp, I become especially excited about being a camp director.  We give young people a chance to experience challenges while also having loving supervision.  Campers get the opportunity to live with a group of other children and learn new skills (like conflict resolution, collaboration) in an environment without technology to distract them.  They learn something wonderful, not only can they survive without their parents being constantly available, but they can also thrive.


As parents, we need to find ways to give our children opportunities to build their strength.  Resisting the lure of over-parenting takes courage. It requires a willingness to have less-informed parents question you.  It requires having faith in the anti-fragility of your child. And it requires the strength to see your child struggle and resist rescuing him or her.

But I can tell you that it is worth it.  At camp, the children of these types of parents rarely struggle.  They make the transition to college gracefully and confidently.   

So my advice to parents is to have the courage to focus more on the first question (how do I raise a wonderful human being) rather than the second (how do I keep him or her safe and comfortable).  

References

Twenge, Jean (2017).  Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?  The Atlantic, September 2017 edition.

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