Ask an adult today if the world is safer than it was a century or two ago, and he’ll probably tell you it isn’t. Most people believe the world is more violent, less stable, and significantly more dangerous than ever before. This belief, however, is categorically untrue. The purpose of this article is not to prove the validity of this argument, as articles like this, this, and this do an excellent job laying out the data. Even gun violence, thought to be persistently on the rise by the vast majority of Americans, is falling drastically.
What is disturbing, however, is that there is currently a persistent belief that our world is shattering, despite all this evidence. People are convinced that we should be afraid of the direction in which our world is heading and should spend more time protecting our children, keeping on heightened alert for potential threats that surround us.
At the same time, our culture is experiencing an unprecedented rise in anxiety, and not only among adults. Teens and school-aged children are experiencing an upswing in anxiety-related disorders, as can be seen here, here, or here.
The bottom line? Though the world is becoming safer and safer, people continue to grow more afraid and anxious. We are not enjoying the fruits of the incredible technological advances and cultural improvements we’ve made!
A big part of this is our increased access to information. Simply put, we have the ability to hear about the ills of the world more quickly and easily than ever before. All of this connection and communication means that the troubles of the world are available for viewing at all times, right in our homes.
Humans are psychologically attracted to fear. The evils of the world make the news because they are what we want to hear about. In Psychology Today, Eric Dietric Ph.D. explains, “Because of our evolutionarily supplied love of fear and preference for the bad, our modern news is 24/7 reporting about bad and scary things. Violence is always newsworthy; peace is not. No one wants to hear 24/7 that someone was nice to someone. Sure niceness can be tossed in at the end of a segment on the latest school shooting by an angry gunman, but the real news is the latest school shooting by an angry gunman.” We are psychologically geared to pay attention to what is scary.
This increased awareness of violence and societal degradation leads to a false perception of its frequency and ability to harm us. Sadly, this perception we, as adults, embrace is drastically impacting our children.
We feel compelled to shelter our children from the real world, and are inadvertently holding them back from experiencing life. Unless they’re under direct supervision, our children are seldom outdoors or out-of-sight. We fear the dangers out in the world and even the judgment of others, fearing that someone may call the authorities about our poor parenting choices should we let a school aged child walk a mere couple of blocks unattended. We accompany our children to every sporting event and activity in which they participate, and stay connected via phones and social media at all times.
This helicopter parenting is affecting our kids’ preparedness for the real world. Jokes about Millennials’ inability to function without their parents, while amusing, is a sad commentary on just how unprepared for life this most recent generation is. This constant supervision shatters our children’s time for creative, unstructured play, which is a major concern in and of itself.
Worse yet, this fear is keeping our children from developing a sense of power over their world. One of the greatest tasks of childhood is to develop what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: the belief that, while a person cannot control his or her world, he or she has real power to influence the course of his or her life. It’s the underlying belief that “I am powerful” and “My decisions matter.”
Developing this belief takes years, and begins in childhood. Young adults with a strong internal locus of control are consistently found to be the most successful in navigating their transition to adulthood and in finding success in the adult world. The rising believe that the world is shattering drastically interferes with this development. Instead of believing they are powerful, our fears teach children that the world is dangerous regardless of what people do about it, leaving them feeling helpless.
In the face of all of this, I feel fortunate to be in a position of teaching history right now. When I teach history, second through eighth graders hear real stories of what has happened in the past. We talk about wars, death, violence, plagues, and more. When I first mention this, some people wonder, “isn’t that stuff scary for kids?” My response is, “No, not if it’s taught well.”
Stories such as these could be taught in a way that induces fear or glorifies violence. Alternately, they can be taught as the true stories of humanity’s past, serving as evidence for how far the world has come. When I teach these stories, I emphasize:
How far people have come in their ideas about equality.
How much more accepting people have become of their differences.
How violence has become less and less of a means for handling conflicts.
How people have become more accepting of other religions and beliefs.
How people have become more respectful of the property rights of others.
- How inventions and scientific discoveries constantly improve our world.
Of course, there is still vast room for improvement in each of these areas. Yet, when students see that people throughout history have made such significant improvements to our world, they are more likely to feel empowered to continue that path of improvement. Rather than clinging to the idea that that world is a scary thing to hide from, they are more likely to see it as their job to lead or contribute to the next round of improvements that will make the world even better. They feel empowered to influence not only the path of their own lives, but the trajectory of the world as a whole.
Our children have the power and responsibility to change the world, and they need our support to do it. Through open and honest conversation and a commitment to focus on the facts rather than falling prey to our fears, we just may see more and more articles like this in the future… and that would be good news for us all!