Antifragile Children: “YOU CAN DO HARD THINGS!”

Apr 10, 2024 | Adam Trufant

Some Kahdaladies setting out on a multiday hike

One of the many joys of hearing Dr. Jonathan Haidt speak recently was learning more about what makes the human heart so dignified and special. Haidt leads his listeners to this point by grouping various examples into three categories: fragile, resilient, and antifragile.

In the fragile category, he includes the example of a wine glass. When the glass encounters resistance, even slight pressure, it will shatter. He then compares the fragility of a wine glass to the resilience of a plastic cup. When a plastic cup falls to the ground, it may not shatter but it will not be made stronger by hitting the floor.

Unlike many of the fragile or resilient things in the world, the psyche and musculature of a human being will not grow without encountering resistance. The experience of growth is usually, its fair to say, an uncomfortable experience. An Olympic athlete must endure incredible struggle in training to be allowed a spot as a competitor. A classical pianist must commit thousands of hours to study and practice before hushing audiences with uplifting melodies. Our immune systems need exposure to stressors to grow resilient, as do our minds, hearts, and bodies. Another example of this would be allergen exposure. As the father of a 6 month old, our physicians have encouraged us to rub peanut butter on our daughter’s gums from time to time. Without this small exposure to a foreign entity, her immune system may not develop the necessary tools to process peanuts.

Human strength, of course, has its limits. Working your way up in weight in gym workouts is prudent. Otherwise, taking on more weight than you can handle could leave you injured. Still, for the human being, resistance is necessary for growth. Discovering the edge of your limits and facing this plainly is imperative. This antifragile characterization is also true for bones, trees, and children.

Our activity structure at camp speaks to this truth. You can not simply have a prize without earning it, and you can not achieve the best trips without putting in the time to prepare and to master certain skills. This whole system is meant to help our campers learn that steady progress towards their goals will pay off in huge satisfaction, and this understanding of the value of working towards a goal is healthy and helpful for life ahead!

One brilliant example Dr. Haidt uses to illustrate this point is the palm tree. Palm trees can weather hurricanes and high water better than almost any living organism. However, Haidt shows that studies have been conducted in which palm trees are grown inside a green house. When a palm tree is grown in this safe and sheltered manner and then placed outside in the elements, it cannot withstand even mild winds before it is blown over. What is the difference between the mature palm tree grown in a green house and the palm tree grown on a Caribbean beach?

The principal difference is that the tree grown outside has grown strong in direct proportion to the resistance it has encountered in its lifespan. This phenomena is called antifragility.

Haidt writes, “Palm trees are antifragile. Early bends cause scars, then another wind comes, and it cracks and scars some more, and as the palm tree reaches its full height the tree has cracked and scarred so many times that it can withstand category 5 winds.” Isn’t the human heart also like this? When we experience heartbreak of any sort and we live through the tension of experiences that stretch us, we are then that more more likely to endure similar strains and stretches in the future with the grace that comes from experience.

As Haidt proves on his substack, After Babel, children across the world are experiencing a severely difficult season. Social media, the decline of a play-based childhood, and increased polarization in our society have all played a part in the sharply rising levels of anxiety and depression in our populace, especially our youth! This being the case, it’s no wonder parents are increasingly careful to raise their children in safe, secluded environments. However, the zealous desire to protect our children can actually harm them when taken to extremes.

Love to see that satisfied smile at the top of a tough climb 🙂

Haidt suggests that one temptation of American parents in the last 30 years has been to overpromote a culture of “safetyism”. Creating hyper-safe environments means our children, our greatest treasures and the future leaders of our society, are not exposed to stressors and discomforts that would have been considered normal by previous generations. As a result, our children may not become as prepared to meet the demands of adult life and may be more prone to anxiety when life presents roadblocks, hardships, and inevitable struggles.

Haidt: “What do parents do? We take our beautiful little palm tree, we pull it indoors, feed it, give it everything it needs to grow. It looks great! And then we roll it out into the wind. And the first breeze that blows, the tree cracks.”

Haidt again: “All children are by nature antifragile. Just as the immune system must be exposed to germs, and trees must be exposed to wind, children require exposure to setbacks, failures, shocks and stumbles in order to develop strength and self-reliance…kids must have a great deal of free play to develop and they benefit from physical play, which has anti-phobic effects. Kids seek out the level of risk and thrill that they are ready for, in order to master their fears and develop competencies.”

So, what are parents to do? There are real stressors that may be too heavy for developing hearts to carry in the increasingly invasive digital world. On the other hand, there is the danger of becoming a helicopter parent which robs our children of the chance to problem solve and overcome adversity. Haidt’s recommendation is to embrace opportunities to do away with screen-based childhood and to restore the play-based childhood. Particularly, he recommends summer camp as one of America’s best tools for building children’s resilience, self-confidence, and autonomy.

“Find a sleepaway camp with no devices and no safetyism. Many summer camps offer children and adolescents the chance to be out in nature and away from their devices and the internet for a month or two. Under those conditions, young people attend fully to each other, forming friendships and engaging in slightly risky and exciting outdoor activities that may bond them together tightly. Avoid camps that are essentially summer school, with academic work and internet access, or camps that do not provide children with any communal responsibilities. Try to find a camp that embraces the values of independence and responsibility. If possible, send your child there every summer, from third or fourth grade through eighth or ninth grade–or all the way through high school if they want to transition from camper to counselor. Bonus points for any camp that promises not to post pictures every day on its website. Summer camp is a great opportunity for parents and children to get out of the habit of constant contact and, especially for parents, constant reassurance that their kids are okay.”

Jonathan Haidt, PhD – “The Anxious Generation”
Relationships are cultivated in the context of play! Let’s bring back a play-based childhood, shall we?

We now know that play deprivation is a major cause of the teen mental health epidemic. These are some of the most important aspects of summer camping: the restoration of play-based childhood, the normalization of challenge, the solidification of faith, and opportunities for growth in grit and emotional maturity (sidenote: check out this cool article on the place of risky play in optimal childhood development).

So, how do we give kids real growth? As the old saying goes, “Prepare the child for the road. Not the road for the child”. We partner with our families at Kahdalea and Chosatonga to let campers encounter reasonable risks in a caring and challenging environment… AND to see that they come out stronger on the other side! As my wonderful mother, Anne Trufant, likes to say, “YOU CAN DO HARD THINGS!” And not only CAN you do hard things, but you should do hard things. Resistance is necessary for growth, and part of growing into a mature, thriving adult is learning to endure discomfort for the sake of noble goals. While the activities at camp are fun and attractive, they also can teach these values and promote this endurance and vision. Are your children prepared for the road ahead?

Lastly, understanding the antifragile nature of children is an important component of human, or character, formation. Without this formative educational framework, natural virtues (like courage, justice, prudence, or temperance) may not be developed properly in the life of a child, like a palm tree grown in a greenhouse. But what about spiritual formation? What about openness to the transcendent and faith in God? Human and character formation are important pieces in the structure of a child’s education. If a child does not have a resilient character grown from enduring many everyday discomforts and navigating the ups and downs of human interaction, they will not have a foundation in which faith can be supported and buttressed. Faith grows in the ground of gratitude, not self-pity or victimhood. Individuals rooted in an entitled headspace will also be more inclined towards faulty emotional reasoning. A person who lacks this basic confidence in themselves will often default to pleasure seeking instead of learning to choose challenges which produce positive fruit in the long term. Humility is key to accepting challenges since humility often helps us to not to fear failure. Humility is organically sown in communities that continue to show love to individuals within them despite failure. Ring a bell for anyone? This is precisely what we strive to do at camp. It’s not about performance – it’s about loving the person, regardless of failure or victory in any activity or endeavor.

Mother Teresa laughing as she shakes a dog’s paw at the Mother House in Calcutta

In friendship and always with a smile, our prayer is to steadily plant seeds of knowledge which invite the children of the rising generations to step into humility, into a life of virtue, into a life of trust in the ultimate goodness of being itself, and into a life which is free to dare greatly. This, of course, is not easy! The journey requires effort, endurance, trust, and openness to God’s touch and guidance. Friendships help a lot! As does good humor, too 🙂

The invitation of Jesus to carry our cross daily is not for the fragile sort. How can we, adults, model this sort of endurance and love for God for our kids despite our own weaknesses and fears? With humility, one day at a time, in all the little things, imperfectly but honestly, just doing the best we can with the light we have. Gratefully, we can trust that our Father will never be disappointed with our best efforts, even if they appear a meager offering!

I will wrap up these reflections with a quote that has often been repeated by our staff over the last decade. This statement was offered by Pope Benedict XVI in a speech to young people:

“The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

Chosatonga Director Jeffrey Trufant does the Chosman on the Everest base camp hike in Khumbu Valley, Nepal