“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
If you are a parent, your greatest fear in life is likely something happening to one of your kids. According to one 2018 poll from OnePoll and the Lice Clinics of America (not my usual data source, but no one else seems to measure this), parents spend an average of 37 hours a week worrying about their children; the No. 1 back-to-school concern is about their safety. And this makes sense, if you believe that safety is a foundation that has to be established before dealing with other concerns.
You can see the effects of all this worrying in modern parenting behavior. According to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, on average, parents say children should be at least 10 years old to play unsupervised in their own front yard, 12 years old to stay home alone for an hour, and 14 to be unsupervised at a public park. It also shows up in what parents teach their kids about the world: Writing in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2021, the psychologists Jeremy D. W. Clifton and Peter Meindl found that 53 percent of respondents preferred “dangerous world” beliefs for their children.
No doubt these beliefs come from the best of intentions. If you want children to be safe (and thus, happy), you should teach them that the world is dangerous—that way, they will be more vigilant and careful. But in fact, teaching them that the world is dangerous is bad for their health, happiness, and success.
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The contention that the world is mostly safe or mostly dangerous is what some psychologists call a “primal world belief,” one about life’s basic essence. Specifically, it’s a negative primal in which the fundamental character of the world is assumed to be threatening. Primal beliefs are different from more specific beliefs—say, about sports or politics—insofar as they color our whole worldview. If I believe that the Red Sox are a great baseball team, it generally will not affect my unrelated attitudes and decisions. But according to Clifton and Meindl, if I believe that the world is dangerous, it will affect the way I see many other parts of my life, relationships, and work. I will be more suspicious of other people’s motives, for example, and less likely to do things that might put me or my loved ones in harm’s way, such as going out at night.
As much as we hope the dangerous-world belief will help our kids, the evidence indicates that it does exactly the opposite. In the same paper, Clifton and Meindl show that people holding negative primals are less healthy than their peers, more often sad, more likely to be depressed, and less satisfied with their lives. They also tend to dislike their jobs and perform worse than their more positive counterparts. One explanation for this is that people under bad circumstances (poverty, illness, etc.) have both bad outcomes and a lot to fear. However, as Clifton and Meindl argue, primals can also interact with life outcomes—you likely suffer a lot more when you are always looking for danger and avoiding risk.
Teaching your kids that the world is dangerous can also make them less tolerant of others. In one 2018 study, researchers subjected a sample of adults to a measure called the “Belief in a Dangerous World Scale,” which asked them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Any day now chaos and anarchy could erupt around us” and “There are many dangerous people in our society who will attack someone out of pure meanness, for no reason at all.” They found that people scoring high on this scale also showed heightened prejudice and hostility toward groups such as undocumented immigrants, whom they stereotypically considered a threat to their safety. This study was conducted among adults, but it is easy to see how these attitudes would migrate to their kids.
This is similar to the argument made by the writers Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic in 2015, and in their subsequent book, The Coddling of the American Mind. Lukianoff and Haidt contend that when parents (or professors) teach young people that ordinary interactions are dangerous—for example, that speech is a form of violence—it hinders their intellectual and emotional growth. It also leads them to adopt black-and-white views (for example, that the world is made up of people who are either good or evil), and makes them more anxious in the face of minor stressors such as political disagreement.
And to top it all off, negative primals don’t even help keep people safe. Researchers writing in the journal Psychology & Health in 2001 showed that a general state of fear can actually make a person less likely to take threats seriously (a self-defense mechanism to control our fear) and undermine precautionary behavior (by degrading the ability to address danger rationally).
It is not in young people’s interest that we instill in them negative primals. In so doing, we might harm them by making them less happy, less healthy, and more bigoted toward others. To break this pattern, parents—and anyone who interacts with children—should instead work to cultivate a sense of safety. Here are three rules to help you get started.
1. Heal thyself.
Parents might feed their kids negative primals because they hold such views themselves. This is easy to do in a world where we are bombarded with news and information, which studies have linked to distress, anxiety, and depression—even when the news is not specifically negative. And research shows that many parents pass on their anxiety to their children.
One way to allay our own fears is simply to look at the facts. As the journalist Christopher Ingraham has written, being a kid in America has never been safer. Since 1935, the number of childhood deaths between the ages of 1 and 4 fell from 450 to 30 per 100,000. It has fallen by nearly half just since 1990, and the decreases in other age groups are similarly impressive. Use this knowledge to counteract the media’s relentless focus on fear and danger. You might even print out a chart on declining childhood mortality (such as the one linked above) and put it on the fridge as a reminder of how good your kids have it.
2. Be specific and proportional.
Grown-ups want to teach young people how to stay safe in the face of threats. However, the research is clear that a blanket attitude of fear can actually make them less able to do so. If you want to offer a child a warning to make them better prepared, focus on one specific danger they might face and how to deal with it. Instead of saying, “People will try to take advantage of you at college,” say, “If someone is trying to get you to drink too much, avoid that person.”
When you do need to bring up a threat, make sure you keep it in proportion. For example, I don’t want anyone to be mean to my kids any more than the next parent. They know this. But it doesn’t help them for me to say that hostile words inherently make them unsafe. Social conflict is unavoidable, and making them fear it as an existential threat amounts to giving them a negative primal, rendering them less resilient.
3. Counteract negative primals from outside.
Almost every day that my daughter was in high school, she was taught about the dangerous world—about bad people, dangerous forces in nature, and a bleak future for our country. She told us about the gloom and doom each evening at dinner, and my wife and I could see her growing pessimism. So we set about deliberately countering the scary narrative. We didn’t sugarcoat the threats; we simply tried to be specific about the kind behaviors we witnessed, and ways that the world was safer and more prosperous today than in the past. It was our way of sharing our genuine belief that on the whole, most people are good and things are getting better.
Working hard to avoid instilling a fear-based primal belief in kids is good. But really, we should all be able to do better than that, and try to cultivate a positive primal belief that can truly improve their lives. For that, I turn to the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “Through Love, one has no fear,” he wrote in the Tao Te Ching.
Instead of teaching our kids fear primals, let’s teach them love primals, which neutralize fear and put something good in its place. Let them know that people are made for love—we all crave it, and we can find something lovable in just about everyone we meet. We don’t always give it or accept it, because we make a lot of mistakes, but love is what all our hearts desire. If you want to give your children a rule to live by, this one is a much safer bet.
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