Cosseting our kids is a good thing — mostly


Today’s teenagers are no fun at a party. Across the rich world, teenagers are less likely to drink and less likely to take drugs. They are also less likely to have sex, though the drop in the number of teenagers claiming to have had sexual intercourse may in fact reveal that today’s teenagers are more honest.

They are also, as almost any employer will privately tell you, less resilient, more entitled and less effective than the last set of teenagers — who in turn, were less likely to be decent workers or heavy drinkers than their parents were.

They are also much less likely to die: child mortality, as with infant mortality, has fallen over recent decades across the rich world. They are much less likely to commit or be the victims of crime.

These facts are all linked: the same thing that means the children and teenagers of today are less likely to get drunk or stoned is also why people complain that modern children are cosseted and spoilt. That same thing? Parenting!

Broadly speaking, most of us, whether we are thinking about our children or those of our close friends, want them to have better, easier and safer lives than we had. And broadly speaking, the longer you do something, the better you get at it. That works in two ways: directly, children and teenagers benefit from the inherited advantages from their parents. But they also benefit from advances in science and technology, some positive (we now know that smoking kills) and some negative (teenagers and children, just like the rest of us, are the subject of ever more sophisticated means of surveillance).

But taken together, it creates a situation where parents, on the whole, do a pretty good job of entrenching some of the privileges they had to fight for without their children really noticing, whether they are the first in their family to go to university or the 15th, while technological and social change also makes each subsequent generation less exposed to the messy realities of life. My shower is much more sophisticated than the one in my grandfather’s house was. I also have a much more limited idea of how to go about fixing it if it breaks.

The story across the world isn’t of unbroken advance. In the UK, teenagers are more likely to be obese than they are in most of the rest of the rich world, and the same decreases in child and teenage mortality that have been seen elsewhere have not been enjoyed in the UK. But a teenager in the UK is less likely to die due to motor traffic accidents than they are in most of the rich world.

And our greater effectiveness in looking out for and encouraging children and teenagers to take fewer risks is not without downsides. As Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge university and the author of the excellent Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain explains, many high risk activities teenagers take part in are also “pro-social” ones: they reflect a teenager’s desire to fit in and integrate into their immediate community of other teens and they allow them to develop resilience and resourcefulness. Resilience and resourcefulness are, of course, the two things that people frequently complain that young entrants to the workplace lack.

Ultimately, of course, you can’t realistically prevent parents and other caregivers doing whatever they can to make their children’s lives easier. Nor would it be desirable to do so even if you could, as for most people, creating a better life for their children is a major part of what motivates them to get up and leave the house in the morning. Or at least, get up and turn on Zoom in the morning.

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Nor would any government have an easy time unpicking or halting the tide of various technologies that allow parents to monitor and stay in touch with their children like never before. Taking risks and staying out late drinking with your friends are pro-social activities for most teenagers — but it’s a hard sell to explain to any individual adult that their son having his stomach pumped is a net win for his social and psychological development. And, of course, society as a whole is better off because the current cohort of teenagers is more squeaky-clean than those that came before.

But it does come at a cost: not only through the development of the young but also at a cost to societal resilience. States in the rich world are not going to be able to undo the imperatives to care for your children well, and they shouldn’t try. However, they could and should do more to create managed opportunities for young people to learn to take risks and to build resilience.

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