Fab Fridays 56: Raising Antifragile Kids

We want to make our kids feel safe and protected, but we sometimes overplay our hand. 

This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most— Nassim Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

We are dealing with a generation of children that are sensitive and risk averse—children that tend to seek adults to solve their problems and protect them from discomfort. As educators and parents, we must stop this.

Kids are not as fragile as we think.   

It’s not easy to see a child suffer, so it’s normal for adults to want to intervene when a child is upset. In cases, however, when we feel like we’re protecting our children, we really aren’t. Rejection, failure, pain, and discomfort are feelings that we humans experience throughout our lives.

Going out of our way to protect children from these is rarely a good idea. The earlier they learn to face and tolerate difficulties, the better prepared they will be for the rest of their lives.

I experienced this dilemma in my classroom. I taught bright children who had difficulty handling small setbacks, and others who suffered at the slightest bit of disappointment. I fought my desire to intervene. By facing challenges on their own, I reminded myself, children grow stronger into adulthood.

I found that for some classroom parents, however, this wasn’t as straightforward:  

“Ms. Fabrega, please help me convince my daughter to opt out of the talent show auditions this year. She insists on doing a solo dance, but she is not ready and I don’t want to see her suffer,” one told me. 

“I would appreciate if my child is not present when you discuss the 9/11 incident, as she is sensitive and I’d prefer she doesn’t find out about it,” said another.     

These are just some (of many) examples of my classroom parents aiming to protect their children from minor setbacks. While done with the best intentions, these interventions could have unintended consequences.

The line between these well-meaning actions and overprotection is thin.

Parents want their children to make their own decisions, think for themselves, and solve their own problems. In reality, however, they are reluctant to give them independence because they fear that something will go wrong. This harms children over the long term.  

Overprotected children can’t handle disappointments without adult intervention. Used to being helped, they get discouraged at the sight of challenge. They suffer from low self esteem, as they feel like they can’t do anything by themselves. Overprotection makes children feel entitled and fragile.

We want our children to be the opposite of fragile—we want them to be “antifragile”.

A term coined by author Nassim Taleb, antifragility describes things that become stronger when exposed to stress and randomness. Contrary to the fragile, which breaks when exposed to stress, the antifragile needs stress to thrive.

Children grow stronger from facing challenges, moderate pain, and low-stake conflicts.They do best when given the freedom to fail and navigate through the ups and downs of life. Children are antifragile.

It is our job as educators and parents to continue cultivating their antifragility by not intervening when they face moderate stress. Heck, we should push children toward moderate stress!

I did so, in my classroom, and loved seeing how my third and fourth grade students grew stronger. I observed from a distance before intervening in minor conflicts. When intervening, I let them do the talking first and taught them to reflect. I encouraged them to try and solve problems on their own before asking for my help. I made them take risks—of course you should try out for the basketball team!—and face challenges.

No matter how hard we try, we can't prevent every bad thing from happening to our children. We don't have that much control over their lives. At times they will fail, and at times they will suffer. But as long as the failing and suffering are not chronic, they will grow stronger and thrive.  

Let children experience discomfort and deal with difficult people. Let them take a few bruises, bumps, and scars in a relatively safe environment, like school or soccer practice. Just like exposing kids early on to germs will help them develop stronger immune systems, exposing them to difficult situations and reasonable risks will help them become more resilient, independent, and self-confident.

Good parenting, like good teaching, is about mastering the art of balance.

It’s about keeping a close eye, but not intervening all that much; making children feel safe and protected, but not that much either. Doing nothing is often better than doing something.  Although difficult at first for both children and parents, stronger, antifragile adults will thank us in the future. 

Until next week,

Ana Lorena Fabrega