Tamara Mann Tweel: 00:00 … to these trends. But they’re also here to educate us on some of the solutions they are working on and to give us concrete advice on how we can best support our current students. Larry Amsel is a psychiatrist at Columbia University and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry. An early champion of the application of decision science, game theory, and behavioral economics, Dr. Amsel’s current work seeks to understand the connection between all kinds of trauma and the developing brains of children and adolescents. George Khalaf is executive director of Empatico, an ed-tech start up connecting students to classrooms around the world using seamless video conferencing technology. Lenore Skenazy founded the book and blog, “Free-Range Kids.” She is currently the president of the new nonprofit Let Grow, and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 00:56 So for my opening question, which is really more of a plea, can you explain this? What’s happening? Please just walk us through how you understand these trends and, um, what you think our students are facing before they come to college? And we’ll go with Lenore, George, and Larry.
Lenore Skenazy: 01:11 Yeah, um, first of all, thank you, thanks for having me here. I have never [inaudible 00:01:15] a room full of professors before. It’s a little intimidating, but I’ll tell you my story, which is that it was 10 years ago. I let my nine year old ride the subway by himself. Big deal, right. I didn’t write about it immediately, it didn’t strike me as a gigantic story. But as a columnist, and one day I didn’t have anything to write about and I asked my editor, “Should I let … should I write about letting him ride the subway?” And she said, “Yes, it’s a nice local story.” So, I wrote “Why I let my nine year old ride the subway alone,” in the New York Sun, which is now dead, not because of me, and um, two days later, I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News and, for contrast, NPR, um, defending my decision and, um, for years after that, um, in interviews when people would ask about “the subway ride,” um, at some point on the conversation, the interviewer would always get somber and lean forward.
Lenore Skenazy: 02:04 Somehow I knew they were leaning forward even on the phone when it was a phone interview. It just felt like it. But their voice would go down and they’d say, “But Lenore, how would you have felt if he never came home?” And that was really like dig the knife, and I always felt like, um, you know, “I have a spare son at home. I didn’t mention him.” I, I, never knew how to answer that question. It’s true, I do. He calls himself “the control group.”
Lenore Skenazy: 02:28 Anyways, the point is that, um, I didn’t have a good answer and it literally took me four years, the same time as a college education, um, to figure out the reason I didn’t have an answer is ’cause it wasn’t really a question. Um, obviously everybody was asking that question. “How would you feel?” “Oh, I don’t know, bummed.” You know? “Disappointed. Wow, what a waste, 18 years and now he’s dead.” Um, I didn’t, I, clearly they were asking this for another reason. ‘Cause they knew exactly how I would feel, and so what was the reason? And the reason was, this was an accusation. What I had done wrong. My crime was not just putting him in subterranean public transportation. It was that I hadn’t gone to that terrible place in my mind, thinking about how I would feel if he never came home and it was all my fault.
Lenore Skenazy: 03:18 I thought it would be so cool. I put him on the subway. I didn’t give him my phone. Oh my God. And get to that point where I’d go, it’s not worth it, um, because to be a good parent in America today, and we can just end after this. To be a good parent in America today, you have to be thinking of the worst case scenario and literally any situation that your kid could possibly be in, and I brought all sorts of hilarious examples that I will regale you with later, but the point is I call it worst first thinking. You go to the worst case scenario first and you proceed as if it’s likely to happen.
Lenore Skenazy: 03:46 And we have gotten so used to that, that we think of it as natural. Like, of course you think of that, like, like, like instinct. But it’s actually something we’ve been trained in because any time anything bad happens and there’s … it’s on TV, it’s like, like three years ago some baby was taken a hospital somewhere and CNN did, of course, a gigantic story on this. And then they had like a thousand tips on like how to keep your baby from being stolen from the hospital and, and one of the things that they really suggested is that you remember, first of all, never to into the bathroom without your baby. It’s like you’re going, “Hey, can I get into the bathroom?” “No.” You know, with my baby. With my body, you can’t get into the bathroom.
Lenore Skenazy: 04:26 But, um, so don’t … because that’s when they’re usually taken. They’re usually not taken, but that’s what … it starts sounding like they’re usually taken and then, of course, never give your baby to somebody dressed like a nurse. Because those are the people who are stealing … it’s like, but, but most of them are nurses and they have these electronic things on their arms and there’s like no way, except for that one case on CNN, that your baby is gonna be stolen. But if you start thinking like that, everything, like even the safest situation, you, you have your baby, you’re handing it to the nurse, you’re going to the bathroom, you’re in the hospital, even that is not safe enough and that’s just, that’s just when they’re born.
Lenore Skenazy: 05:02 And then, from there, every situation is, is written in terms of like, what terrible thing could go wrong. And I’ll give you some examples later, but I’m gonna hand it over to George.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 05:11 Can you just walk us through the connection though? Between … yeah, sorry.
Lenore Skenazy: 05:14 Isn’t it blindingly obvious?
Tamara Mann Tweel: 05:15 Yeah. Sorry.
Lenore Skenazy: 05:17 The connection is that kids grow up having no differentiation from the idea of like walking through, um, you know, sniper fire and walking to school, because either way, they’re put into a giant, uh, tank or SUV in this case, and, and driven to school. I mean, like 11% of kids still walk to school these days because parents don’t think it’s safe. And so, if you’re constantly told that walking to school is dangerous, drinking from a plastic bottle is dangerous, talking to a stranger is dangerous, um, playing in the yard is dangerous, uh, there’s, it’s just parents have been told to be worried about their kids in every situation and so then the kids are not allowed to interact with the world.
Lenore Skenazy: 05:59 They’re not allowed to climb jungle gyms, they got rid of the swings in, um, Spokane, Washington and Richland, Washington, because these were considered too dangerous on the playground. I mean, at some point, everything seems to start to seem dangerous and your parents have been intervening all along to make sure that you’re okay and are you hydrated and do you have a snack and is the snack organic and, and, and I think the kids grow up really thinking that anytime they’re uncomfortable, somebody should be coming to help them because they always have.
Lenore Skenazy: 06:29 There’s always been … if you feel bullied, immediately go to an adult. Don’t ever try to solve it for yourself. I brought one little example. These are … what are these? Do you guys know? No, you’re like the one crowd that doesn’t know, because you’re professors. Alright. And not moms going, “Oh, of course.” These are baby knee pads. Okay? These are like for falling, right? Thank you. Yeah, it’s insane, but if, but if you’re putting these on your baby, the, you’re already raising a child who you’re telling you’re not capable of doing anything that any generation has ever done before you. You’re not able to encounter anything, including the ground, um, without some other little level of intervention, literally between you and the ground.
Lenore Skenazy: 07:13 And so, I think when you get to college and you’ve had your parents with you all the time, or a coach, or an adult always helping, assisting, I call it concierging. What can I do for you now? Oh, I’ll make a call. Um, you get to college and you look around and you go, “Who’s concierging for me?” And then, guess what? There’s a lot of administrators out there who are gonna do it.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 07:32 Thank you. Thank you, thank you. Thank you.
George Khalaf: 07:42 Just hearing Lenore makes me stressed and sad. I feel like I need to go home and put these on my kids.
Lenore Skenazy: 07:48 Right.
George Khalaf: 07:48 Um, I will say that, um, just hearing you talk that, you know, I live in Brooklyn. I have a five year old and a seven year old. And the five year old has a penchant for just running ahead, always.
Lenore Skenazy: 07:48 That’s scary.
George Khalaf: 08:01 Always. He’s always running ahead. Now I see it as a good thing. And sometimes … but he knows to stop at the intersection and always does. But, you know, one out of every 10 times, there’ll be another adult at that intersection who reprimands me as a dad for letting him run ahead.
Lenore Skenazy: 08:17 Right.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 08:17 Wow.
George Khalaf: 08:18 And if I engage that person in a conversation, it never really goes down the path of, “Well, what if they didn’t stop?”
Lenore Skenazy: 08:24 What if.
George Khalaf: 08:24 And what are you doing to protect your kid? And I read-
Lenore Skenazy: 08:27 How would you have felt if he never-
George Khalaf: 08:28 Exactly. What if the … you know, if you live in that “what if” world, you just become paralyzed by fear and, and you can no longer parent, you know, so … I mean I, when, when my kids were born, I’m by no means a child psychologist. My only experience with kids is being a dad. And when my kids were born, my wife gave me a bunch of books. I read maybe, you know, a fraction of the number I was supposed to, pretended that I read the others unsuccessfully, but then, you know, I was surprised at how many of the books emphasized happiness and how to make your kid happy.
George Khalaf: 09:05 And oftentimes the solution to happiness that they presented was one that involved intervening to make sure that if your kid felt sad, these are the steps you should do to make them happy. If they feel angry, these are the steps you should do to like reduce that anger. If they feel anxious, these are the things you should do. And part of me, just hearing you too, felt like, well, shouldn’t they be with that anger for a little while and learn to sort of process that and deal with that and then come out of it having the confidence to know that when they do feel angry, they have the agency to be able to manage that because they’ve learned how to do that.
George Khalaf: 09:44 And, and, it’s, it’s a tough act as a, as a parent, but it’s about that balance between giving the space to let that happen. Um, the other, the other thing, just to answer your questions, I do feel like, you know, look, social media gets a really bad rap, but I do feel like for kids, it really needs to be sort of managed carefully. Um, I think there’s a tendency for sort of like, um, a compare and despair phenomena where you’re constantly comparing your life to all these curated lives, lives on social media with the best pictures and everything. And if you’re sitting there on the weekend and, you know, seeing feeds of your friends taking beautiful vacations in islands in the South Pacific or, you know, Guam, or wherever they are, Italy, suddenly your family dinner to the Olive Garden doesn’t seem that great.
George Khalaf: 10:38 You know, ’cause you’re rather be in Italy. Um, and, and, and I, and I, and I feel as though that, um, you know, just the other day I came home. It was two weekends ago. I live in a small building with a number of units and there’s a 16 year old in our building, Graham, and Graham was looking at his phone in the lobby, visibly distraught. And I said, you know, ” Graham, what’s up?” And he started to show me all these pictures on his Instagram account that were, you know, a party that his friend had organized in the neighborhood that he wasn’t a part of. And, and he was, he was struggling with sort of, you know, I by no means was the popular kid in high school. I’d find out about parties at tennis practice on Mondays or Tuesdays that took place over the weekend.
George Khalaf: 11:21 And I was, you know, it hurt, but I was more or less okay with it because it was in the past. This is like Graham had a visceral sort of real- time picture of his friends who are sitting there enjoying a party that he felt like he should have been invited to. And it was streaming all night. And he’s sitting in his room, you know, looking at all of these pictures. So, I think, I think, social media-
Lenore Skenazy: 11:21 Now that’s horrible.
George Khalaf: 11:45 … over protection, this sort of allowing are all part of the mix that goes into, um, this sort of anxiety/depression levels that we’re seeing.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 11:54 Thank you. Larry.
Larry Amsel: 11:57 Well, you know, it occurs, it occurs to me that, you know, so much was said today and some are just said by my co-, co-panelists that I wanted to take sort of a ten thousand, um, foot view because, um, and maybe ’cause I necessarily have some kind of synthetic thing to say about this. It seems to me one of the things we haven’t paid enough attention to is the amount of change that has taken place, um, in our science, since I was born.
Larry Amsel: 12:20 I orient myself, I was born in ’53, but I oriented myself with, you know, World War II as the, as sort of the starting historical moment. And the amount of change that has taken place is just unbelievable. And when you think about it, for most of human history, your grandfather could teach you everything you needed to know. You know, my grandfather was a Hasidic rabbi and he was in the full regalia Hasidic rabbi and he believed to his dying day that he could teach me everything I needed to know.
Larry Amsel: 12:44 Um, and for most of human history, your grandfather could. And right now, I have to ask my child or we’re gonna have to ask our grandchild how to work the computer. So it’s, it’s gone the other way. The amount of change has just been, um, and every technological change reorganizes and requires social, um, social evolution. So the first guy who sort of said, “Hey guys, stop with the berries. Let’s plant something.” Right?
Larry Amsel: 13:10 So the first guy who tried to move society receives a lot of resistance, because any kind of change, any kind of technological change requires a reorganization of society and we are living through incredible changes at the economic level, at the level of the internet. So I just want to talk about how some of those get filtered through psychological mechanisms.
Larry Amsel: 13:30 You guys mentioned the internet. I think that, as far as social media is concerned, the result of watching other people and comparing yourself really is filtered through something which we call the ego ideal. So we all have an ego ideal, some idealized version of what we ought to be. And I think we used to create that through our, you know, that was the high-school cafeteria. We got some sense of it. You know? So we kind of compared ourselves. Some people are doing a little better, some people are doing a little worse, but now, I think that with, um, you know, with social media, there’s a constant comparison.
Larry Amsel: 14:02 My example is imagine being in a permanent class reunion, right? Now we dread our class reunions, right? But you’re permanently in a class reunion. The other thing that has happened is that at the same time, there’s been a kind of … all of these changes are so hard to integrate that where you end up is a lot of incoherence. So that simultaneously with what Lenore is talking about, which is this over protection, we also burden our kids with adultification very, very early. These kids are expected to think like adults much younger.
Larry Amsel: 14:31 I think Lenore came up with the concept of the little Bonsai. You know, it looks like a full tree, right? And I do think there’s been a kind of elimination of child, an elimination of what childhood is. Um, you know, from a young age, kids are competing about college, they’re competing about their, their, they’re competing about their looks, um, sexuality is obviously moved to a much younger age. So the ideal, there, that, all of those things feed into this ego ideal crisis.
Larry Amsel: 14:56 The other thing I think that’s going on is, is, so there are gonna be three mechanisms that I think are important here and they lead to the anxiety and depression. So one is this crisis of ego ideal, the comparisons are just do difficult. The second thing is a kind of cognitive dissonance. I think the messages that kids get, first of all, one of the messages are about what I call obligate activism. This notion from a relatively early age, certainly from middle school, high school right now. There’s this sense that you’re supposed to be an activist. You know, you gotta be an activist. You know, and that leads to a sense of cognitive dissonance, ’cause I think that kids are told that they have to believe things that they don’t necessarily believe. It’s not with argument. There are ideals that are given to them that are, that are over that.
Larry Amsel: 15:38 And the last, I think the last problem mechanism that I think is important is a simple idea and I think, I think, John’s talked about this in the book, but I think it, it can’t be emphasized enough. The simple idea that experience-based child development, the idea that there’s a natural thing in which you go out and you encounter the world and that is how you develop. And we have tried to engineer that to the point where it is so distorted at this point.
George Khalaf: 15:38 Yes, it is.
Lenore Skenazy: 15:38 Oh, my God.
Larry Amsel: 16:05 Um, that I think that the kids coming out of it, uh, are again, ending up with this anxiety and with this depression. So, um, I think those, those are the three mechanisms I hope to elucidate today.
Lenore Skenazy: 16:15 Am I allowed to just jump in for a second?
Tamara Mann Tweel: 16:17 Yeah, definitely. [crosstalk 00:16:18]
Lenore Skenazy: 16:18 The example that John and I used in this article in Reason, um, about how we’re taking childhood away from kids and not letting them experience anything, these was an article in Parents Magazine called The Play date Playbook, because play dates are so incredibly complex that you a whole five pages in a major magazine to tell you how to do it. But one of the questions was, um, your kids are, your child is older enough to stay home alone for a couple of hours during the day, but now she has a play date over. Are you allowed to run out and go get the dry cleaning and come back. And the answer was? No, absolutely not. Why not? Because you want to be there in case there’s a spat. You want to be able to intervene if there’s an argument with, between your kid and her friend.
Lenore Skenazy: 17:03 And then there was another example they gave of like, and also if they microwave food, they could spill it on themselves and end up with third-degree burns and, of course you want to worry about that. They really did give an example of a microwave thing that ended up with a hospital visit. So, A, they could physically hurt themselves, but B, they could be emotionally hurt if they had to go through the difficult process of making up with a friend and going on and having fun after arguing. And that’s something that you talk about if you want to get kids doing things and experiencing things, if there’s always somebody swooping in and intervening, um, they don’t get that experience and you wonder if you get to campus and everybody says, that’s like, you know, “I need a trigger warning. You didn’t help me. I feel angry. I should never feel angry. Where’s my mom?” I think you’re looking at Parents Magazine has been telling parents to, to not let their kids experience anything physically, mentally, socially, emotionally.
Larry Amsel: 17:54 So, just, just to reinforce, from the time I was eight, um, we took the subways too, so that was a long time ago.
Lenore Skenazy: 18:00 Oh, eight. Okay. Sorry. Right. I’m like a wuss.
Larry Amsel: 18:03 We were expected, we were expected to take the subway, um, our, our, from Crown Heights to Williamsburg. We took the subway alone.
Lenore Skenazy: 18:03 Yeah, well, actually when I was seven-
Tamara Mann Tweel: 18:03 Gee.
Larry Amsel: 18:11 And no one thought twice about it.
Lenore Skenazy: 18:13 That’s right.
Larry Amsel: 18:13 Actually in those years.
Lenore Skenazy: 18:14 Right.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 18:15 So I want to just talk to you ’cause it’s so unusual. You, all of you don’t just diagnose challenges. You are actively trying to solve and intervene. Um, and I’d love you just to describe the work that you’ve, I think you’ve really all built it. Uh, maybe George, you can start and then Larry and Lenore.
George Khalaf: 18:31 Sure. Um, so, you know, the, the genesis of, of Empatico really started from this fear of polarization. And we talked a little bit about social media. I mean, there’s the, there’s the belief that social media is doing more to divide us than unite us by creating these echo chambers where we surround ourselves with like-minded voices. And, um, we immediately unfriend people who offend us in any way. And we’ve talked a lot about this and I think in that sort of environment, um, you lose the ability to exercise those important muscles around civil discourse across lines of difference, which is a muscle you need to exercise it to skill, and being able to do that. And, and, and, more troubling is I think the lack of exposure to the other, the dehumanization of the other, is a fertile breeding ground for ignorance, uh, mistrust, and eventually hatred.
George Khalaf: 19:32 So, so, our idea at Empatico was how can we, at scale, expose children to kids they otherwise wouldn’t meet at a time when the neuroscience says that they’re most right for a better, higher return on the investment from that exposure. So, the neuroscience suggests that between the ages of seven and 11, kids in that sort of empathy sweet spot are old enough that they’re starting to ask questions about who they are, where they fit into the world. But they’re still young enough where they haven’t yet formed those default stereotypical assumptions around people who are different.
George Khalaf: 20:09 Um, we’ve developed a free platform that connects classrooms around the world. We have content around universal topics, like weather, food, water, places you play, topics that every child, regardless of their race, religion, national origin, has experienced in their life. And with designing the content around these topics in a way to maximize the likelihood of a meaningful interaction. There’s a preparation stage, an interaction stage, and a reflection stage.
George Khalaf: 20:40 The platform itself, the Empatico platform is a one-stop shop where teachers register for free, they select the activities, they provide their availability in a typical school week, and we have a matching algorithm that matches them with other classrooms. Sort of think of a modern-day version of pen pals-
Lenore Skenazy: 21:00 That’s what it sounds like.
George Khalaf: 21:01 … for that scale where, you know, and the content is designed in a way where it’s not a heavy lift for teachers, because teachers are so stressed in time. Instead, it’s designed to be a supplement to existing curriculum. A fun way to take the kids out of the community they know, out of the four walls of their classroom to combine the best of technology with the best of humanity to really, you know, take them out of the world they know, expose them to kids they otherwise wouldn’t meet at scale. Our vision is that ultimately, this will be a tool that all classrooms with an internet connection and a camera can use to supplement their existing curriculum and recognizing that classrooms need to be about more than teaching math, science, reading and writing. They need to focus on character skills. And that those character skills and exercising those civil discourse muscles can come about at an early age by exposing kids to people they otherwise wouldn’t meet.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 22:00 That sounds great. Thank you. Thank you. Larry, yeah.
Larry Amsel: 22:04 Um, so one of the things that I think is important, one of my specialties, actually it’s one thing that’s been a specialty, is, is trauma. And that is trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Um, and I think the two really important things that I’ve, I’ve testified about this is first of all, not every adverse thing is a trauma and, in fact, if, if you’re interested in the psychiatric definitions of trauma, it’s pretty intense, what’s, what’s called, what’s called a trauma. But each, it has to be something that is, you suspect is life threatening or loss of limb. It’s a very, very serious, it’s a very serious category.
Larry Amsel: 22:37 Now there are different definitions, obviously. But in terms of a psychiatric definition, it’s a very serious thing. And among people who’ve had that kind of serious trauma, about 10% go on to have PTSD. I think there’s an equation out there right now that everyone thinks that all traumas lead to PTSD and this is not true. On the contrary. Ninety percent of people are resilient to trauma. We have a study of about a thousand kids who were exposed to 9-11. This is 15 years ago when 9-11 occurred and we’ve followed these kids, um, and gone back and done evaluations on them.
Larry Amsel: 23:08 And it is true … and then we have a control group of another 500 kids who lived in Queens, and these were the kids who lived or were present at the moment of 9-11. And among them, it is true that there is an elevation in some psychiatric disorders. I’ll tell you in a moment. They don’t have elevated PTSD compared to the control group. They do have, interestingly, elevated rates of, um, separation anxiety. Right? So this idea of being away from the parent.
Larry Amsel: 23:33 But then again, that is in the subgroup, so it’s double what it is in the general population, but still 80% do not have any kind of psychiatric, any kind of psychiatric disorder. But on the contrary, when we did something like the marshmallow test. Do you guys know the marshmallow test but when we do it formal, it’s called a discounting test. Another way of thinking about it is the capacity for delayed gratification. The kids who went through 9-11 compared to their, to their, to the other cohort, they have a greater capacity for, for delayed gratification. They do better on the delayed discounting test.
Lenore Skenazy: 24:06 Wow.
Larry Amsel: 24:06 So we see this as possible evidence of traumatic growth of the notion that where you’re exposed to a challenge and you overcome that challenge, you actually end up in some ways more resilient and I think it’s, it’s, it’s a piece of evidence that, um, you know, that speaks to the kind of thing that, that we’re talking about here, that when we overprotect the kids and they don’t have challenges to overcome, um, then, um, that’s actually a negative for them.
Larry Amsel: 24:32 Um, we have a couple of other studies, but let me pass it on.
Lenore Skenazy: 24:34 That doesn’t surprise me at all. I think that anxiety comes from not confronting. The first session, the second session of the day was Greg [crosstalk 00:24:41] talking about cognitive behavioral therapy which is that the idea that you have to avoid all things that scare you or depress you or worry you, actually gives them more power and confronting them, um, gives them less. And so, clearly we must traumatize our children. That’s the, that’s the key. That’s the take away from this session. Go home and traumatize your kids. Um, that’s not actually one initiative that we’re trying yet. Um, but I was going to tell you that the two programs that we have running so far in a test program, a pilot program, out, um, in Long Island at seven schools are the Let Grow Project and the Let Grow Play Club. Let Grow Project is very easy and the only reason we’re doing it through schools is because that’s where all the kids are. It’s like, like the banks with Willie Sutton.
Lenore Skenazy: 25:24 Um, so the deal for the Let Grow Project is this. We well the, the … the teachers tell the kids to go home and ask your parents if you can do one thing on your own that you feel ready to do that you haven’t done yet. And it can be walk the dog, make dinner, um, you know, run an errand, ride your bike, imagine that, to the library or whatever. Actually, I’ll read you later what the Boulder library said. I’ll tell you right now what the Boulder library said.
Lenore Skenazy: 25:51 The Boulder library wouldn’t allow anybody there under age 12 because … why Lenore? It must be here somewhere. Oh, because children may encounter hazards such as stairs, elevators, doors, furniture, electrical equipment, or other library patrons. (laughter) Really scary, those doors, you know, it’s like, “I know they’re supposed to do something like, how do I get it open. Is this … ow, oh wait, I’ve been traumatized.” That’s great.
Lenore Skenazy: 26:23 Anyways, the point is … that’s completely off topic. Easy laugh. So the Let Grow project, the kids go home and do one thing on their own and the thing is that parents haven’t let their kids do any of the things that I’m sure most of you did, except for the college students here. Like how many of you walked to school? Yeah, like, alright, how many didn’t walk to school? Like nobody. Okay. Yeah. ‘Cause you’re like seven, right? You’re a young kid.
Lenore Skenazy: 26:49 Anyways, so the point is that if, if everybody at the school is doing this, then it’s taking away the idea that you’re the crazy, you’re the crazy mom, um, who let your kid do anything on their own and the weird thing is that I really think it only takes this one time. Because when your kid goes out and gets the Slurpee by himself and then he comes back in the door and he’s got the Slurpee and he’s so proud and you’re so proud, it breaks the fear. The fear has been coming, growing with the “what if” and “he can’t” and “what happens” and “what about the predators and the cars and the texters and everybody terrible out there,” and then they walk through the door and it’s like, “Oh.” I mean, I think you’re relaxed as a parent, um, because the “what if” hasn’t happened and I think you feel elated because your kid has proven that they can survive without you. I really think that that’s it.
Lenore Skenazy: 27:35 I think that, as parents, we are programmed to make sure that our kids are gonna survive after we’re done. If you’re always with them, you have no idea if they can do anything on their own. So the Let Grow Project is simple. It’s free. It takes three minutes in the class to tell the kids to go home and I think that eventually, all schools will be doing this because it’s the only way to, to, to break that fear of parents is to normalize it. And there was another reason I thought it was a great idea. But I’ll come up with it.
Lenore Skenazy: 28:02 Um, the other project that we’re doing is the Let Grow Play Club. And this is a chance for free play, either before or after school. And if Peter Gray was here, which he was supposed to be here, he will tell you that the one thing that we’re doing is an extremely radical experiment that has never been done in the history of the universe and every species, which is we’ve taken away play from our kids. Yes. They have soccer, they have lacrosse, they have chess, but all of those classes, all of those activities are almost like school. Right? You’re taught something. There’s an adult who’s deciding when things start, how to play, was the ball in or out, who’s on which team, who’s bringing which snacks, which snacks are they allowed to bring, no donuts, thank you you very much, Lenore. Why did you bring the donuts? You’re supposed to bring organic grapes. Sorry. And everybody likes the donuts.
Lenore Skenazy: 28:50 So, um, when, when you have kids, just trying to organize their own game, they have to do all the stuff that we’re worried about them not learning how to do, that they can’t do on campus. You have to decide what you’re gonna do, you have to make the teams, you have to empathize enough with the other people that you play a game that everybody likes enough so it keeps going. And if, and if it’s mixed-age play, which is a big thing that is been taken out of kid’s lives and it’s the normal way for kids to play, then the 12 year old throws the ball kind of easy to the six year old, because you’re not gonna wallop him. You’re gonna look like a jerk. And so, that’s learning a little empathy. And the six year old who was gonna cry holds it together ’cause he doesn’t want to stop playing and he doesn’t want to look like a baby to the older kids that he’s playing with.
Lenore Skenazy: 29:36 So you learn all these social, emotional skills. You learn compromise, you’re creative. If you’re in Little League, you can’t say, “Let’s all play on our left leg only,” because there’s a trophy, God forbid, a trophy on the line. But when you’re playing with kids you can empathize, you can, you can be creative, and you are democratic. You’re coming up with ideas together and getting buy in. And so if you have free play after school, it answers one of the other problems.
Lenore Skenazy: 30:00 I just want to say that there’s no screens. So you have all these kids, all these ages, and a place that parents feel is safe, um, trying to do something together after school.
Larry Amsel: 30:11 So, just to jump in on that, so, um, people have talked a little bit about cognitive behavioral therapy, after, after 9-11, we, we, we ran a clinic for, um, for people, especially firemen and cops who were exposed to 9-11, um, and, um, and did have PTSD, um, and the treatment for that, and it seemed paradoxical, it certainly seemed paradoxical to, um, uh, to many of the, the firemen that I had to treat, is to say to them is that what we’re going to do is we’re going to expose you to precisely the thing that you’re most afraid of, which was both the memories of what happened on 9-11 and the places that you’re afraid of.
Larry Amsel: 30:45 But the actual treatment is to, is to help them go back into like elevators, ’cause a lot of firemen I worked with could not go into elevators after, afterwards. And this was ruining their lives. Um, but if you slowly expose them to elevators and you did this exposure therapy, and you couldn’t do this with talk. You had to do this with experience and it has to be done with actual experiential and that’s what cognitive behavioral therapy is all about. And if you stop to think about what Lenore is saying is that, you know, human kind evolved this notion of play, ’cause what play is is age-appropriate exposure to the right, to a thing.
Larry Amsel: 31:21 So human beings have cognitive behavioral therapy built into them and it’s built in as play. Because they expose themselves, they know how to find the right level of exposing themselves, they increase the danger when they feel they can handle the increase of the danger, and play is cognitive behavioral therapy for natural human development, if I can summarize it that way.
Lenore Skenazy: 31:40 I love that. I’m using that. That’s great.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 31:42 So, noticing that we don’t have a ton of time left, and I really want to make sure that you give some concrete advice to all of us who are meeting the students that you’re discussing, once they’re 18 to 21, and they’re in our classrooms, um, can we integrate play? Can we integrate empathy? What should be, what, what would you want us to know when we face these students that could be truly productive? George and Larry.
George Khalaf: 32:05 I’d say two things come to mind. First, you know, I’ve, I’ve attended most of the day today and, frankly, I’m, I’m surprised at the level of difficulty it is to sort of engage with civil discourse and diversity on college campuses. Because I’d always envisioned college campuses and thought of my own college experience, as that like pinnacle moment in time where you have that opportunity and, you know, as I meet with my team and we discuss all the challenges we have building Empatico and thinking about, you know, the technology obstacles and empathy and scale and the code and the foreign languages and everything, oftentimes my team would catch me and say, “It’s not like we have the luxury of being on a college campus.”
George Khalaf: 32:57 And, and, and, and, just coming here today, it’s been quite sobering because I feel like it is, I, I, one of my take aways is that it’s not a luxury on college campuses. And there are all these like roadblocks and landmines and, and I always used to think of it as, as the plate. Like, in a way, we’re trying to create those college campuses at scale, at an elementary school level.
George Khalaf: 33:19 The second thing I’d say is, um, in the discussions today, there’s been a lot of talk about empathy and, um, one thing that we’ve learned through the research we’ve studied is that it’s less about the quantity of empathy but more about learning to redirect existing empathy to the other group, to people who are different. You know, so when we have our metrics and our measures of success around empathy, it’s not that like empathy levels went from a three to a nine. It’s more let’s take that existing empathy and learn how to redirect it to people that are in our out group. Um, and I think that’s a subtle, but important, important difference in thinking about how you empathize. I mean, there, you know, people, like extremist groups like ISIS, um, might actually have higher levels of empathy than, you know, us in this room, but they just have chosen to direct that empathy exclusively who share their same ideological beliefs.
Lenore Skenazy: 34:25 Wow. Nice.
Larry Amsel: 34:27 So, I mean, it’s funny, ’cause I have, I have an impulse to say something and I’m not quite sure it’ll be [inaudible 00:34:32], but the impulse I have to say-
Lenore Skenazy: 34:34 You should say it here. If you’re gonna try it.
Larry Amsel: 34:36 Yeah, I will. I’m trained to do that. The impulse is, is that what I wish I could say to the kids, and I have a college-aged kid, what I wish I could say to the kids is, “Calm the fuck down.” (laughter)
Lenore Skenazy: 34:46 Right.
Larry Amsel: 34:48 You are not responsible for solving the Middle East. You are not even responsible for apartheid in South Africa. You’re not even responsible for your future career. These are a couple of years that are carved out for you to develop the best intellectual skills and abilities that you have and those other responsibilities, please put them aside for a moment, okay? And you’ll get to fix the world when you’re a little older and you figure out your career when you’re a little bit older. But for now, take advantage of the fact that this is the best learning environment you’ll ever have in your life. And tell your professors that that’s what you’re there for and make them do their job. (applause)
Lenore Skenazy: 35:29 To that, I would just say, “Ditto.” I mean, that sounded pretty good to me. And also, to just, um, recognize where they’re coming from. It’s like I never blame helicopter parents because they’ve been told by Parents Magazine to be there and intervene all the time and to drive the kids all the time and similarly, I’d have a little empathy for these kids if they’ve been brought up in this bell jar and now, you know, you took the bell jar off. It’s not surprising that they’re sort of like confused and needy.
George Khalaf: 35:58 Exactly.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 36:00 Thank you all so much. Thank you. Thank you. (applause)
Larry Amsel: 36:06 So, we didn’t get a chance for Q&A, but we’ll be hanging around. If you questions, please come up to us.
Lenore Skenazy: 36:10 We have a table.
Larry Amsel: 36:10 Thank you.
Tamara Mann Tweel: 36:40 Thank you.
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