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When Helping is Hurting
Happy Tuesday, everyone! Today we will explore naive interventionism which helps explain why good intentions often have such bad results. Hint: growth is awesome.
ONE FROM THE AGES
13th Century Persian poet, Rumi, on the benefit of pain.
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Nassim Taleb on the need for volatility and freedom in learning:
“The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom… His argument is that they repress children's natural biophilia, their love of living things. But the problem is more general; soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children's lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality. Good students, but nerds—that is, they are like computers except slower. Further, they are now totally untrained to handle ambiguity. As a child of civil war, I disbelieve in structured learning . . . . Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all those things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.”
Source: Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, by Nassim Taleb
ONE FROM US
On multiple occasions, my wife and I have taken a sick kid to the pediatrician. The doctor gives a test and it comes back negative, but she prescribes antibiotics anyway. Now, my father was a doctor so, naturally, I have less trust in doctors than the average person. I grew up hearing about harmful tests that were ordered to rule out insignificant risks, risky procedures that were conducted unnecessarily, and overprescribed antibiotics. These kill all bacteria, including the good stuff that is essential to a well-functioning immune system. Antibiotics come with a long term cost, both to the individual (poor gut health) and society (creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria). These may be warranted, but they are not always. For example, antibiotics will offer no benefits if a person’s infection is viral.
Most sickness goes away on its own. This is called regression to the mean. When infections come, our body works like hell to get us back to normal. But we are impatient, pattern-seeking mammals. We try stuff and presume that the stuff we tried is responsible for our improvement. After all, you will likely improve after you take a homeopathy pill. But it is unlikely that the homeopathy helped in any way other than the not insignificant placebo effect. At the point you decide to undergo an intervention, you are likely about to improve anyway. You’ll ignore or accept the harm of that intervention because it worked (even if it didn’t).
This is demonstrative of the sort of naive interventionism that is widespread in mainstream society today. We almost always mistake activity for productivity. We tend to overreact to every accident, overestimate the benefits of our efforts, and ignore negative downstream effects.
When we have a problem or a goal, we naturally want to do something to solve it. We don’t celebrate the things leaders don’t do and we don’t pay people to let nature take its course. Parents are often annoyed when doctors say, just wait it out. Likewise, they feel better about skills coaches who overwhelm athletes with directions and tutors who give constant instruction rather than guiding students to figure things out for themselves.
Unfortunately, the wisdom of non-intervention is usually only evident after the intervention and even then you have to look for it. For example, every year more people die at regulated crossings than while jaywalking. Likewise, many European towns have found that traffic accidents drastically decreased when they eliminated the white lines that marked lanes and that roads were safer when they got rid of traffic signs. This “naked streets” movement is based on the counterintuitive realization that we are actually safer when assessing risks ourselves. An individual is the most sophisticated mechanism there is for keeping himself/herself safe. By programming people to depend on safeguards and rigid protocols, we discourage the attention and skill-development that would protect them most.
Still, the opposite approach reigns. We are so afraid that someone might trip and fall that we create a flat, boring world with nothing to trip on. But this doesn’t make us safer. Having no reason for alertness and no experience in problem-solving, we stumble over the twig that has fallen onto our serene path. Pitfalls that would have been effortlessly parried had we allowed ourselves an organic life experience are now significant threats.
Kids today are over 50% more likely to have a distal forearm fracture than in 1950. They aren’t experiencing more injuries because they jump, climb, and run more. On the contrary, these children are presented with fewer opportunities for a forearm fracture than ever before and that is the problem. Because of their limited experience doing normal human things, mundane activities are now threatening for them. By fragilizing our kids, we make them both more likely to be hurt and less likely to live fully.
The same has happened with the self-esteem movement and anti-bullyism. By trying to protect our children from hurt feelings we make them more sensitive to every slight and more easily shattered with every letdown. By convincing them that adults should intervene in every altercation, we prevent students from learning to de-escalate conflicts and we actually increase antagonism, exacerbating the bullying problem.
Naive interventionism is especially pervasive in education where we hyper-focus on testable and quickly forgotten knowledge while ignoring the immeasurable skills that will matter most in an unpredictable future. The desire to measure progress and quantify our impact leads us to identify poor metrics. Curriculums infinitely expand. Natural development and exploration are stifled in the pursuit of accumulation.
Modern education values people who are able to sit still and follow a procedure. Curious, energetic, and creative children are often labeled hyperactive. Many conclude these kids need pharmaceutical intervention. Rather than adapting the system, we try to rewire the child. Alarmed by an immediate problem (poor grades and rowdy behavior), we risk many side-effects and blunt the very feedback mechanism that might have prompted a better approach.
We forget that students are humans with human needs and unique personalities. One-size-fits-all models necessarily fit no one. The reality is we can’t possibly teach our students everything they’ll need to know. Thus, sparking a passion for lifelong learning is far more important than any specific method.
Fear lies at the root of naive interventionism. We want to do everything we can to help our children succeed. It takes a lot of courage not to interfere. There will be pains and accidents that make you question whether you should have done more. But these may be the most formative lessons.
There are certainly times where protection is necessary. For example, ignoring the addictive nature of sweets and smartphones virtually guarantees dysfunction and lifelong dependency. The point is to help create an environment that stokes optimal curiosity, exploration, and self-reliance. To do this, we often have to ask ourselves, are my best intentions actually making things worse?
If you are digging this train of thought, I highly recommend checking out this first chapter of The Coddling of the American Mind. Also, check out Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids movement. Well-researched and a necessary counterpoint to modern over-protectionism.
Thanks for reading!
Life is too short to be normal,