New Op-ed: Munchausen-by-Proxy Nation
“Safetyism” advancing under the banner of the Left is hazardous to your health.
What if someone you trusted said you were sick? What if someone you trusted made you sick so you relied on them for support?
That’s known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy. It’s considered a form of abuse.
Now, what if someone did all of the above to an entire nation?
That would be known as what the left-wing of the Democratic Party and its misguided if well-intentioned fellow travelers are doing to America now.
You may say that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not much of one. It’s a conclusion you can’t avoid after reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The book, published late last year and just out in paperback, is the most important work for understanding mass hysteria gripping a nation since The Origins of Totalitarianism and The True Believer.
Lukianoff and Haidt pull together research in medicine, psychology, and social sciences to explain why college students want safe spaces, shout down speakers, and support limiting the First Amendment under the rubric of banning “hate speech.”
They reveal the origins of these trends and why they bode ill for society beyond the college campus: The land of the free and the home of the brave is becoming the land of the supervised and the home of the timid.
Culture Change Denial
The authors do not pretend there is a simple answer nor do they point to a single cause. But their hypothesis holds government policies meant to ensure safety—the bureaucracy of safetyism—responsible for creating a culture of dependence.
This is not a revelation to conservatives who have long contended social welfare programs foster dependence.
But now we have the science to back up the contention. And since we’re told we can’t deny science when it comes to climate change, we can’t deny the science behind the culture change we’re experiencing.
Culture begins at home, and the authors spotlight paranoid parenting practices that are harmful to mental health. Parents’ fear of child abduction, physical injury, or even scraped knees has led to a decline in unsupervised play.
This stunts kids’ growth. Attempts to make childhood perfectly safe are “preventing kids from being strong and independent” and end up depriving them of the experiences they need to become successful and functioning adults.
State policies reinforce parents’ paranoid tendencies. The police chief in New Albany, Ohio says children below the age of 16 should not be allowed outside without supervision. Florida authorities charged two parents with felony child neglect when their 11-year-old played basketball unsupervised (in their own yard) for 90 minutes and a neighbor called the police.
In their intriguingly titled paper “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences,” evolutionary psychologists Ellen Sandseter and Leif Kennair write, “Overprotection through government control of playgrounds and exaggerated fear of playground accidents might . . . result in an increase of anxiety in society. We might need to provide more stimulating environments for children, rather than hamper their development.”
Unstructured, unsupervised play allows kids the risk-taking through which they test their limits and gain the confidence to push their limits. Freedom to take risks breeds bravery.
The corporatization of education has made pre-school the starting gun for the college admission process and this has also taken its toll on children. “Opportunities for self-direction, social exploration and discovery are increasingly lost to direct instruction” in the curriculum to meet government-mandated school exams.
Unsupervised play is declining as parents (particularly wealthier parents) fill their kids’ time with music lessons, team sports, tutoring, and playdates typically “under the watchful eye of a parent” or adult authority.
This effectively trains children to take instructions “under a watchful eye” rather than giving them experience at discovering things on their own. They will be good at taking direction, not so good at being self-motivated. And it bodes ill for the culture of innovation that has served the United States so well and distinguished it from other industrial democracies.
The decline of unsupervised playtime also has negative implications for “small-d” democracy.
Research shows letting children play on their own teaches them how to cooperate and work out differences amongst themselves without relying on an authority.
In his paper, “The Importance of Unsupervised Childhood Play for Democracy and Liberalism,” Ball State University economist Steven Horwitz writes, “Denying children the freedom to explore on their own takes away important learning opportunities that help them to develop not just independence and responsibility, but a whole set of social skills that are essential to living in a free society.”
“Laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from ‘figure out how to solve this conflict on your own’ to ‘invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises,” Horwitz warns. “People’s first instinct will be increasingly to invoke coercion by other parties to solve problems they ought to be able to solve themselves.”
The False Promise of “Absolute Safety”
That’s what we’re seeing on campus and off with calls to regulate behavior and speech even in private settings.
Add a government bureaucracy predisposed to arrogate power to itself and you have a prescription for disaster.
Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning note that a bureaucracy charged with protecting the vulnerable can actually make people feel more vulnerable than they are.
These self-identified vulnerable people come to rely on external authorities to resolve their problems. It’s a condition known as “moral dependence.” As their ability to use other forms of conflict management atrophies, they demand more protection from authorities. The authorities are happy to oblige, creating a downward spiral of further dependence and further demands for administrative protection.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn told the Harvard graduating class in 1978, “Even biology knows that habitual, extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism.”
The administrative state tells us a conflicting if not opposite message: Trust us—we can guarantee your absolute safety and well-being.
To justify its existence, it will tell us we are in danger and will find ever more risks from which to protect us.
This is Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
And it’s why “safetyism” advancing under the banner of the Left is hazardous to your health.
-Curtis Ellis is Senior Policy Director for America First Policies.