Four and a half years ago, in the original version of CTB, I wrote a post which I titled “A Fragile Generation.” The original inspiration for the post was around that time – early 2013 – I had heard from some co-workers about an unusually large number of recent suicides at a local high school. To say “unusually large” seems kind of insane to me as quite frankly, I would view anything more than ZERO to be an intolerably large number, but in this case, it was something like 8 in one year – in one high school. Which I just could not comprehend.
That got me to thinking about various things – this was before all the more recent stories you hear about the challenges of managing Millennials, trigger warnings, safe spaces and microaggressions on college campuses, or the complete meltdown of all the snowflakes in the aftermath of the presidential election results this past November. And somehow or another, I thought back to a discussion I’d had with a good friend of mine a year or two before that.
So, at the start of the post I described that interaction. My friend Amir grew up in pre-Shah Iran and moved to the US after the Shah was deposed. He is liberal, in the “classic liberal” sense, not in the “progressive liberal” sense. But these tendencies make him a bit “softer” on certain issues than I am.
I was telling Amir how I was playing ping pong with my son Alex, who was 12 at the time, and how he had never beaten me, but was up like 15-5. Alex started talking smack about how he was going to beat me, and started pressing and making mistakes. All I did was kept putting the ball back on his side of the net (I’m not a very skilled ping pong player). And eventually I won 26-24.
My friend Amir said, “Ken, you’re crushing the poor boy’s spirit. Why couldn’t you just let him win?” I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Amir, there’s no effing way I am ever letting my kids win at anything. When they beat me at something, whether it’s ping pong, or basketball, or skiing or whatever – they’ll know that it is because they earned it, not because I gave it to them.”
Around the same time as I thought back to that conversation, I had just finished reading a book called “Anti-Fragile” by Nassim Taleb, who is probably most famous for writing a book called “The Black Swan,” which pre-dated and predicted the financial market meltdown of 2008. In “Anti-Fragile,” Taleb explores systems that get stronger (i.e. less fragile) by being put under stress. One example he gives that I remember vividly is the air travel system: When a plane crashes, it is no doubt a great tragedy to those who lose their lives and their loved ones. But air travel gets safer and better due to that “stress.” People investigate, learn the cause of the crash, make changes to prevent it from happening again in the future and as a result, air travel in total becomes more “anti-fragile.”
And as I thought about my conversation with Amir and the book “Anti Fragile” in the context of these suicides I was hearing about, it occurred to me that as a society, we were doing a HUGE disservice to our children. I suggested that the parenting strategies that had been utilized by my generation – summed up in Amir’s mindset that by not letting Alex beat me at ping pong, I was in fact “breaking his spirit” – had in fact resulted in a generation that was the furthest possible thing from being “anti-fragile.” Try as we might, we can’t protect them from making mistakes, from setbacks, from disappointments, from failures. From getting the occasional C. From heartbreak. And that by trying to do so, we are failing at our MOST important jobs – turning fully functional adults out into the world to go forth and prosper.
The very sad ending to the story of that original post is that I posted it to the blog and about 2 hours later I looked at my email and read a message from my kids’ high school: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Jungeman family at this difficult time . . . .” And as sick as it may be, I thought to myself “Oh, God no . . . please let it be anything but a suicide.” But it was. A senior boy, a lacrosse player with his whole effing life to live, had ended his life.
I’ve been thinking recently about that post – and decided to share the gist of it along with some other thoughts. Three weeks ago – 3 ½ years since Matt Jungeman committed suicide – a 9th grader at the school (where Alex is now a senior) also committed suicide. And as sad as I am for the family and for the life lost – I can’t even begin to imagine their grief – I’m also pissed. Not at anyone specifically, but at all of us. Because we are failing our children.
The absolute hardest thing you can do as a parent is to stand back and watch your kids experience adversity. To let the train wreck happen. And to not intervene to make it hurt less (at least right away). But sometimes you just gotta let them learn things the hard way. And as our kids go through the struggle and find their way out the other side, they will be so much the better for it.
I saw this article this morning, and it makes many of the same points – much more articulately. But I was surprised that the article doesn’t make any mention at all of the rising epidemic of teenage suicide, even though the two are clearly interlinked. You can read more here, here, and here.
I freely admit that I don’t understand the mental health side of things and where that comes into play in these incidents. But I suspect it’s a lot less about real depression and mental health problems and more about not knowing how to cope with setbacks in life, not having enough appreciation for just how precious the gift of life is, and not having enough perspective to see all there is to life beyond 140 character tweets and the number of likes on your latest Instagram post.
Like I said, this waste of precious life pisses me off, in part for the loss of life and its potential and in part because some people don’t get to choose. Two of my classmates my senior year in high school. My wife’s younger sister who died in a car accident in France when she was 20. The many people I knew that lost their lives on 9-11. So many others – whether by accident, illness, or something else. Their lives were just taken from them. So when some young person decides that life’s not worth living, well I just wish I could get in their face and scream
WAKE THE FUCK UP!! (pardon my language) Boo hoo you didn’t get into the college you wanted to go to. Boo hoo some stupid boy/girl doesn’t like you. You know what, I’ve been there. I get it. Sometimes things get hard. Suck it up and move on. There so much of life yet to come and so much joy left to experience if you can just recognize one very simple fact – you’ve already been given the greatest gift of all, the gift of life! The chance to go out there and see what new wonders God has in store for you. It may not come today. It may not come next week. But if you get up every day and give everything you’ve got, those blessings will come to you. And you’ll look back at every one of those days that you thought you weren’t there yet, and realize that every one of those days was a blessing too. Because life is not a destination. It’s a journey. And every day you are blessed to open your eyes is another great day on that journey.
I know there is so, so much more to it than that. Maybe the Let Grow Foundation described in the Jonathan Haidt article is a good start. Awareness of the problems that result from these failed parenting strategies and a commitment to promote change is a small step in the right direction. I hope it is not too late – because I honestly shudder to think what the future could portend to the coming generations if this trend is not reversed, and reversed quickly.