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A Religious Observance can be a wedding, a christening, a Memorial Day service, a bar mitzvah, or anything like that you might be apt to think of. There are lots of things going on at them. There are lots of things you can learn from them if you’re in a receptive state of mind. The word “observance” itself suggests what is perhaps the most important thing about them.

A couple are getting married. A child is being given a name. A war is being remembered and many deaths. A boy is coming of age.

It is life that is going on. It is always going on, and it is always precious. It is God that is going on. It is you who are there that is going on.

As Henry James advised writers, be one on whom nothing is lost.

OBSERVE!! There are few things as important, as religious, as that.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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But tell them

By all means tell people, when you are busy about something that must be done, that you cannot spare the time for them except they want of you something of yet more pressing necessity; but tell them, and do not get rid of them by the use of the instrument commonly called the cold shoulder. It is a wicked instrument.

— George MacDonald (as quoted by C.S. Lewis in George MacDonald)

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To have grandchildren is not only to be given something but to be given something back.

You are given back something of your children’s childhood all those years ago. You are given back something of what it was like to be a young parent. You are given back something of your own childhood even, as on creaking knees you get down on the floor to play tiddlywinks, or sing about Old MacDonald and his farm, or watch Saturday morning cartoons till you’re cross-eyed.

It is not only your own genes that are part of your grandchildren but the genes of all sorts of people they never knew but who, through them, will play some part in times and places they never dreamed of. And of course along with your genes, they will also carry their memories of you into those times and places toothe afternoon you lay in the hammock with them watching the breezes blow, the face you made when one of them stuck out a tongue dyed Popsicle blue at you, the time you got a splinter out for one of them with the tweezers of your Swiss army knife. On some distant day they will hold grandchildren of their own with the same hands you once held them by as you searched the beach at low tide for Spanish gold.

In the meantime, they are the freshest and fairest you have. After you’re gone, it is mainly because of them that the earth will not be as if you never walked on it.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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How can we raise wiser children who will not fall prey to the Untruth of Us Versus Them and the self-righteous call-out culture it breeds? And how can teenagers and college students themselves create and foster a common-humanity way of thinking?

A. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Use the “principle of charity.” This is the principle in philosophy and rhetoric of making an effort to interpret other people’s statements in their best or most reasonable form, not in the worst or most offensive way possible. Parents can model the principle of charity by using it in family discussions and arguments.

B. Practice the virtue of “intellectual humility.” Intellectual humility is the recognition that our reasoning is so flawed, so prone to bias, that we can rarely be certain that we are right. For kids in middle or high school, find the TED Talk titled “On Being Wrong.” The speaker, Kathryn Schulz, begins with the question “What does it feel like to be wrong?” She collects answers from the audience: “dreadful,” “thumbs down, embarrassing.” Then she notes that her audience has actually described what it feels like the moment they realize they are wrong. Until that moment, the feeling of being wrong is indistinguishable from the feeling of being right. We are all wrong about many things at every moment, but until we know it, we are often quite certain that we are right. Having people around us who are willing to disagree with us is a gift. So when you realize you are wrong, admit that you are wrong, and thank your critics for helping you see it.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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Some strategies for raising strong, emotionally resilient children by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt:

Assume that your kids are more capable this month than they were last month. Each month, ask them what tasks or challenges they think they can do on their own—such as walking to a store a few blocks away, making their own breakfast, or starting a dog-walking business. Resist the urge to jump in and help them when they’re struggling to do things and seem to be doing them the wrong way. Trial and error is a slower but usually better teacher than direct instruction.

Let your kids take more small risks, and let them learn from getting some bumps and bruises. Children need opportunities to “dose themselves” with risk, as Peter Gray noted. Jon’s kids love the “junkyard playground” on GoVernor’s Island, in New York City. It lets children play with construction materials, including scrap lumber, hammers, and nails (after the parents sign a long liability waiver). On their first visit, Ion watched from outside the fence as two ten-year-old boys pounded nails into lumber. One of the boys accidentally hit his thumb with the hammer. The boy winced, shook his hand out, and went right back to pounding nails. This happened twice and did not deter the boy. He learned how to hammer nails.

Encourage your children to walk or ride bicycles to and from school at the earliest ages possible, consistent with local circumstances of distance, traffic, and crime. Ask your school to provide a way for kids to check in and check out, so parents can keep track of children who travel to school independently without having to give them a smart-phone to track them directly.

Send your children to an overnight summer camp in the woods for a few weeks—without devices. “The old-fashioned generalist camps are where We see the most impact in terms of letting children develop their own interests,” Erika Christakis says, “where kids can make choices about what they do and don’t do.”

Encourage your children to engage in a lot of “productive disagreement.” As psychologist Adam Grant notes, the most creative people grew up in homes full of arguments, yet few parents today teach their children how to argue productively; instead, “we stop siblings from quarreling and we have our own arguments behind closed doors.” But learning how to give and take criticism without being hurt is an essential life skill. When serious thinkers respect someone, they are willing to engage them in a thoughtful argument. Grant offers the following four rules for productive disagreement:

Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict. 

Argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong (and be willing to change your mind).

Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.

Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.

— The Coddling of the American Mind

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The effects of play deprivation and oversupervision may extend far beyond college. Steven Horwitz, an economist at Ball State University in Indiana, took the same research on play that we have reviewed in this chapter and worked out some possible consequences for the future of liberal democracies. He drew on the work of political scientists Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom, both of whom studied how self-governing communities resolve conflicts peacefully. Successful democracies do this by developing a variety of institutions and norms that enable people with different goals and conflicting desires to resolve their problems while rarely appealing to the police or the state to coerce their fellow citizens. This is the “art of association” that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he traveled through the United States in 1831.

Citizens of a democracy don’t suddenly develop this art on their eighteenth birthday. It takes many years to cultivate these skills, which overlap with the ones that Peter Gray maintains are learned during free play. Of greatest importance in free play is that it is always voluntary; anyone can quit at any time and disrupt the activity, so children must pay close attention to the needs and concerns of others if they want to keep the game going. They must work out conflicts over fairness on their own; no adult can be called upon to side with one child against another.

Horwitz points out that when adult-supervised activities crowd out free play, children are less likely to develop the art of association:

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 variety of social skills that are central to living with others in a free society. If this argument is correct, parenting strategies and 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.” This is one of the “vulnerabilities of democracies” noted by Vincent Ostrom.

The consequences for democracies could be dire, particularly for a democracy such as the United States, which is already suffering from ever-rising cross-party hostility and declining trust in institutions. Here is what Horwitz fears could be in store:

A society that weakens children’s ability to learn these skills denies them what they need to smooth social interaction. The coarsening of social interaction that will result will create a world of more conflict and violence, and one in which people’s first instinct will be increasingly to invoke coercion by other parties to solve problems they ought to be able to solve themselves.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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In his later book Antifragile, Taleb explains how systems and people can survive the inevitable black swans of life and, like the immune system, grow stronger in response. Taleb asks us to distinguish three kinds of things. Some, like china teacups, are fragile: they break easily and cannot heal themselves, so you must handle them gently and keep them away from toddlers. Other things are resilient: they can withstand shocks. Parents usually give their toddlers plastic cups precisely because plastic can survive repeated falls to the floor, although the cups do not benefit from such falls. But Taleb asks us to look beyond the overused word “resilience” and recognize that some things are antifragile. Many of the important systems in our economic and political life are like our immune systems: they require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow. Systems that are antifragile become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond vigorously. He notes that muscles, bones, and children are antifragile:

Just as spending a month in bed . . . leads to muscle atrophy, complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top—down policies and contraptions . . . which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems. This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.

Taleb opens the book with a poetic image that should speak to all parents. He notes that wind extinguishes a candle but energizes a fire. He advises us not to be like candles and not to turn our children into candles: “You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”

The foolishness of overprotection is apparent as soon as you understand the concept of antifragility. Given that risks and stressors are natural, unavoidable parts of life, parents and teachers should be helping kids develop their innate abilities to grow and learn from such experiences. There’s an old saying: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” But these days, we seem to be doing precisely the opposite: we’re trying to clear away anything that might upset children, not realizing that in doing so, we’re repeating the peanut-allergy mistake. If we protect children from various classes of potentially upsetting experiences, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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