New Horizons

The Coddling of Children

Carl R. Trueman

I recently had the pleasure of reading Albert R. Mohler's new book, Culture Shift (Multnomah), in which the president of Southern Seminary takes a long, hard look at aspects of modern American life.

In chapter 11, entitled "A Coddled Generation Cannot Cope," Dr. Mohler takes aim at the way in which parents have developed the habit over recent decades of overprotecting their children. A generation is rising, he claims, which has been so coddled and protected by parents that it is incapable of taking its place in the real world but is doomed to remain emotionally dependent upon parents, and thus at a stunted level of emotional and psychological maturity.

The article is hard-hitting. As a professor and an academic administrator, I am quite used to the occasional student behaving like a five-year-old. Hey, I did it myself often enough when I was younger—but there is a new phenomenon which I have come across recently and which I do not recall from my student days: angry parents, threatening to sue when a child in his twenties has behaved like a four-year-old. When I acted like an immature idiot, I didn't dare tell my father, knowing full well where he would have come down on the issue. Now it seems that blood is not only thicker than water, but also clogs up that part of the brain which sees the value in allowing children to grow up and stand on their own two feet.

Permanent, irresponsible adolescence permeates modern Western society, from those adults who spend more hours in the day on Xbox than they do talking to loved ones, through to those for whom the failure of a sports team is grounds for serious depression and even, in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide. At least in the West we live in a world where the battle simply for survival is, by and large, over, or at least not imminent. Few of us do not know when and whence our next meal is coming; there are no famines in Britain and America, as there have been in Africa; and ethnic cleansing is not something that many of us experience on a daily basis. We have plenty of material possessions and do not struggle in the way that even our grandparents may have had to do in the twenties and thirties. Yet we live in a world where anxiety levels are high, where suicide is not that uncommon, and where the national bill for antidepressants is awe inspiring.

Why is this the case? Mohler suggests, and I think he is right, that the coddling and overprotection of children has created a generation many of whose members have no sense of proportion, no ability to take responsibility for themselves, and no capacity for handling setbacks and contradictions. Just look at the blog world, where all kinds of crazy, extremist rhetoric is used about absolute trivia. Then just reflect on e-mails you have probably received, how rude and abrupt and extreme people are prepared to be electronically, compared to how sycophantic and spineless they often are face-to-face. The virtual world is a mirror of reality: a place where everyone demands to be heard on anything they want to speak about, yet where nobody has to take responsibility or face the consequences of their actions.

This coddling of children also explains why adults are so often childish. The indulgence of children is a form of idolatry. Yes, we are to love our kids and to care for them, but our primary function as parents is to raise them in a manner that allows them to take over from us, to become adults, to stand on their own two feet. But the Bible has some severe words for idolaters. Psalm 115, for example, makes it clear that those who make idols are doomed to become like them, and Romans 1 indicates that those who worship the creature rather than the Creator soon lose many of the characteristics that set human beings apart from other animals. It is no surprise, then, that a society that worships children is destined to remain permanently childlike in the worst sense of the word.

Sadly, the church is too often simply a function of the wider culture on this issue. If we are ever to be anything more than the emotionally stunted people that those outside the church claim we are, we must set our faces against this idolatry of the immature, put aside childish things, and grow up. Let your kids graze their knees, don't call the police when they tell you that the neighbors' son encouraged them to eat a worm, and teach them to take their bumps and bruises and grow up into the people God intended them to be. Amazingly enough, it will help you grow up too.

Adapted from the Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland, December 2008. The author teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2010.

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