TAKEN LITERALLY, NIETZSCHE'S famous aphorism--"What doesn't kill me makes me stronger"--is not entirely correct. Some things that don't kill you can still leave you permanently damaged and diminished.
Yet in recent years, far too many parents, teachers, school administrators, and students themselves have become taken with the opposite idea--that what doesn't kill you makes you weaker. They have bought into a myth that students and children are inherently fragile. For the most part, this represents an understandable desire to protect children from emotional trauma. But overwhelming evidence suggests that this approach makes kids less psychologically stable. By over-sheltering kids, we end up exposing them to more serious harm.
MAKING KIDS FRAGILE
CONSIDER THE STORY of one of our children, Max Haidt, on his first day of preschool in 2009. Max was 3 at the time, and before he was allowed to take the first step on his 18-year journey to a college degree, his parents, Jon and Jayne, had to attend a mandatory orientation session where Max's teacher explained the school's rules and procedures.
The most important rule, judging by the time spent discussing it, was: No nuts. Because of the risk to children with peanut allergies, there was an absolute prohibition on bringing anything containing nuts into the building. Of course, peanuts are legumes, not nuts, but some kids have allergies to tree nuts, too, so along with peanuts and peanut butter, all nuts and nut products were banned. And to be extra safe, the school also barred anything produced in a factory that processes nuts--a category that includes many kinds of dried fruits and other snacks.
As the list of prohibited substances grew, and as the clock ticked on, Max's dad asked the assembled group of parents what he thought was a helpful question: "Does anyone here have a child with any kind of nut allergy? If we know about the kids' actual allergies, I'm sure we'll all do everything we can to avoid risk. But if there's no kid in the class with such an allergy, then maybe we can lighten up a bit and instead of banning all those things, just ban peanuts?"
The teacher was visibly annoyed by the question, and she moved rapidly to stop any parent from responding. Don't put anyone on the spot, she said. Don't make any parent feel uncomfortable. Regardless of whether anyone in the class is affected, these are the school's rules.
You can't blame the school for being cautious. Peanut allergies were rare among American children up until the mid-1990s, when one study found that only four out of every 1,000 children under the age of 8 were affected--meaning probably nobody in
Max's entire preschool of about 100 kids.
But by 2008, according to the same survey using the same measures, the rate had more than tripled, to 14 out of 1,000--meaning probably one or two kids in Max's school. Nobody knew why American children were suddenly becoming more allergic to peanuts, but the logical and compassionate response was obvious: Kids are vulnerable. Protect them from peanuts, peanut products, and anything that has been in contact with nuts of any kind. Why not? What's the harm, other than some inconvenience to parents preparing lunches?
It turns out, though, that the harm was severe. It was later discovered that allergies were surging precisely because parents and teachers had started protecting children from exposure to peanuts back in the 1990s.
In February 2015, an authoritative report called Learning Early About Peanut Allergy was published. The study had looked at the hypothesis that "regular eating of peanut-containing products, when started during infancy, will elicit a protective immune response instead of an allergic immune reaction." The researchers recruited the parents of 640 babies four to 11 months old who, because they had severe eczema or had tested positive for another allergy, were at high risk of developing a peanut allergy. Half the parents were instructed to follow the standard advice for high-risk kids, which was to avoid all exposure to peanuts and peanut products. The other half were given a supply of a snack made from peanut butter and puffed corn and were told to give some to their child at least three times a week. The...