The Promotion of Resilience and the Demise of Anti-Bullyism

Lenore Skenazy's "Let Grow" organization will lead to tougher, happier children.

Posted Jan 18, 2018

Let Grow/Fair Use
Source: Let Grow/Fair Use

Social trends do not move in straight lines. They are somewhat like pendulums; when they go too far in one direction, gravity pulls them back in the other. 

The reverse swing has been bound to occur with anti-bullyism (which I consider a more fitting term for the “anti-bullying movement”). I see it already beginning and predict that 2018 is the year in which it will gain serious momentum.

After all, there is a limit to how long society can follow a destructive policy before some thinkers begin questioning its wisdom. Thus, slavery got abolished, and minorities and women eventually won the right to vote. It took twelve years to repeal alcohol prohibition. After many decades, the war against illegal drugs, especially cannabis, is winding down.

And now prominent intellectuals are sounding the call against the child-safety movement, of which anti-bullyism is one of the major manifestations.

The backlash against the overprotection of college students

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the phenomenon of students in higher education needing protection from ideas that can upset them: trigger warnings, safe zones, limitations on free speech, and protection from microaggressions. Students’ belief in their right to be protected from feeling offended has even led some to resort to physical violence to prevent speakers from appearing on campus.

One of the earliest voices against this character-weakening process in higher education has been attorney Greg Lukianoff, President and CEO of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. More recently, Prof. Jordan Peterson, who has a wealth of fascinating lectures on YouTube, has joined the cause, even at the jeopardy of his university career. And then there is Prof. Jonathan Haidt, who very well may be the most influential psychologist at the moment, with major bestselling books like The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis. In the attempt to save higher education from the grips of the political correctness movement, most glaringly in the social sciences, Haidt established the Heterodox Academy, supported by a growing number of professors.

These giants are now joining forces and slowly-but-surely increasing open-mindedness and resilience in higher education.

The backlash against overprotection in lower education

There are, of course, professionals who have been complaining about the overprotection of young children, denying them a normal childhood by replacing their biologically driven, self-determined play with regimented, scheduled, adult-supervised activities.

Perhaps our nation’s leading academic advocate for free play is Prof. Peter Gray of Boston University, author of Free to Learn, who writes one of the most popular blogs on Psychology Today, Freedom to Learn. As he describes it,

Children come into the world with instinctive drives to educate themselves. These include the drives to play and explore. This blog is primarily about these drives and ways by which we could create learning environments that optimize rather than suppress them.

Another leading advocate of freedom and play for children is Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, probably the funniest of all serious books of this genre. Skenazy is a journalist with a phenomenal sense of humor who used to work for Mad Magazine. Throughout her book, she uses humor to highlight the absurdity of our fears, but also cites respected experts and statistics to back up her contentions. And she presents simple, doable steps for increasing children’s self-reliance.

But there is a good chance you already know of Lenore Skenazy. She came to fame — or infamy — ten years ago, because she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway by himself and wrote about it. She became an instant media celebrity, with some reporters condemning her as an abusive mother and others praising her for the nostalgic reminder of the freedom they had as children. Subsequently she wrote Free-Range Kids, embracing the moniker of “America’s worst mom,” and the rest is history. (Look her up on Wikipedia:

For a good laugh, watch this report about childhood dangers, featuring Skenazy, on The Daily Show.

Let grow

The truly exciting news is that some of these powerhouses are joining forces to lead the needed change in society. Skenazy founded a new nonprofit organization, Let Grow, with no less than Jonathan Haidt and Peter Gray on the board of directors, along with Dan Shuchman, Chairman of FIRE, as chairman of the board, and Tracy Tomasso as executive director. (Skenazy sends out a newsletter on a daily basis, and you may wish to sign up for it.)

Let Grow will also be doing something no other organization has dared to do until now: question anti-bullyism. Its members are recognizing that the sad situation of fragile college students had its origins in k-12, with anti-bullying policies and programs protecting children from each other, curtailing freedom of speech, teaching them to think of their peers in simplistic categories of virtuous victims and evil bullies, and promoting a helpless victim mindset. I was flattered when Skenazy contacted me a few months ago, because of my work in promoting resilience to bullying, asking to have my research inform Let Grow’s approach to the issue. Perhaps my struggle to get society off its love affair with anti-bullyism won’t be so lonely anymore.

Children’s freedom and resilience to bullying

There is no guarantee that leaving children to deal with each other without adult interference will result in all children developing resilience, but it is certainly better than having adults constantly protecting them from each other and mediating their disputes. Researchers have found, not surprisingly, that children who have overprotective parents are more likely to be bullied. Should we expect them to develop resilience to bullying by overprotecting them in school?

A marvelous book published by Yale Press almost thirty years ago, Preschool in Three Cultures, is an intensive study of three preschools, one each in Japan, China, and the United States. While there is no such thing as a typical preschool, the psychologists did their best to find ones that fairly represent their respective countries.

The preschool with the happiest, most resilient children was the one in Japan. It was a Zen Buddhist school with a ratio of one adult to thirty children. Their philosophy is that children are naturally programmed to figure out how to get along, and to learn from their environment and experience. The staff purposely allowed children to fight and refused to intervene unless absolutely necessary. While there was lots of play-fighting, there was almost no true aggression. There was one 3-year-old boy who was frequently aggressive, because of his home situation according to the principal, but his aggression lessened over time.

The preschool with the greatest amount of aggression was the U.S. school, which had only six children per adult. One of the official duties of the staff was to mediate fights between children. These teachers believed they were stopping the fighting. They couldn’t see that by intervening, they were intensifying and perpetuating the hostilities, while preventing students from developing conflict resolution skills.

A famous study conducted in New Zealand found that children were happier and more resilient to bullying in a school that provided them free play in a challenging and dangerous playground.

I had the luxury of discovering the value of undirected child play for myself when I began working as a school psychologist four decades ago in Israel. I served a few schools, and in each one, I asked the principal to arrange for me small groups of students with social or emotional difficulties. I would meet with them once a week for one period, and I would not tell them what to do. So they could do whatever they wanted, with the exception of destroying objects of value. The kids loved attending these groups, and they would become happier and learn better. But one fifth-grader stands out in my mind. He was anxious-looking, disliked, and bullied, a poor student, and clumsy, literally tripping over his own feet. When he felt mistreated during group, he would come crying to me for help. It was clear to me that he was expecting me to do what his parents do at home when he complains about his siblings. But I refused to come to his aid, making it clear that he needed to deal with his peers on his own.

Before long, his crying stopped. He was getting along better with his group mates, and his coordination improved. By the end of the school year, he was the top student in his class!

Now, with Skenazy and her dream team at Let Grow promoting self-reliance and free play, I am confident that this year we will be seeing the dawn of a happier, bully-freer future for our children!

Reading recommendations

I would like to leave you with a couple of article recommendations.

1. "The Fragile Generation" by Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt, published last month in Reason.

2. "The Coddling of the American Mind" by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, published two years ago in The Atlantic.

You may also wish to view my video clip explaining how anti-bullyism is weakening our children and demonstrating how they can be taught resilience (Please forgive it for being an old commercial for my seminars. It just happens to get the message across well):