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27 April 2019

Parenting is pretty predictable, isn’t it? With the first child, parents are super cautious, they panic about everything, worry that every pause in breathing is a sign of terror, they coddle their child constantly, find it heartbreaking when the little one gets a cold or cries in pain after bumping their head.  The new parent goes to great lengths to ensure their precious darling faces no danger of harm or disease – they clean everything continually with antibacterial agents, they avoid play groups when rumour of an ill child attending spreads around the other new parents they have coffee with.  The child is wrapped in cotton wool and handled with care, like a fragile crystal doll.

And then the second child arrives.  Oh, sod it.  They can be thrown around, allowed to play in the dirt.  A sneeze?  Oh, so what?  They’ll get over it quickly enough.  Banged their head, well they all do that, no need to worry, everything will be fine.  The parent has learnt how malleable children really are and that there is no need to coddle and coo all of the time.

Children are not fragile.

Fragility describes those things that are irrevocably damaged or made useless by randomness, breakage, stress or being forced to operate beyond their current limit.

A wine glass is fragile.  Drop it on a hard kitchen floor and it will shatter into countless useless pieces.  Its function is completely destroyed by the damage it has endured.  Fragile things are defined by the very fact that such out of the ordinary events end their utility.

What is the opposite of fragility?  Is it robustness?  Robust things do not break when dropped or thrown around, robust things maintain their utility even under stress and even when attacked.

But the utility of robust items does not improve when out of the ordinary events impose stress, harm or damage upon them.  They remain constant.

The opposite of fragility is not robustness, it is antifragility.

Antifragile things or systems improve when out of the ordinary events impose stress upon them.  The action of harming an antifragile system makes it stronger and even more useful than it was previously.

There are many antifragile things and systems.  Take, for example, the human immune system.  It is an incomplete system at birth – even though it is remarkably complex and sophisticated, the immune system is not designed to stop the attacks and potential illnesses it will face throughout a lifetime.  Instead, the immune system is a learning, adaptive system.  It must encounter randomness and stress before it can learn and adapt to overcome those stresses.

The enlightened new parent knows that wrapping the child in cotton wool only serves to make them weak, not strong.  The enlightened new parent carefully and deliberately exposes their child to risk.  They let them play with the child with chicken pox, they let them mess around in the dirt, they encourage them to climb trees and know that each small fall improves their ability to both assess and deal with the inevitable risks that will come along in life.

Children are antifragile, not fragile.  They need to encounter problems and harm – carefully and deliberately and appropriate to their developmental stage – such that they learn to adapt and become strong, not weak, adults.

The parent drip feeds risk and randomness into their child’s life in a calculated and compassionate way.  Antifragile systems become stronger through exposure to randomness and stress, but antifragile systems lose their utility and become weaker if the stresses imposed upon them are beyond their ability to adapt at that developmental stage.  Exposing children to severe or sustained harm irrevocably damages them and the result is a weak adult who cannot cope with the demands of life.  It is a heinous abuse of the child to deliberately impose upon them severe harm.  But, this should not be used as a case for treating the child as a fragile system, keeping them in a bubble away from all harm – such children will not be able to overcome the challenges that their life will undoubtedly present to them at some point.  It is extremely unhelpful to treat children as fragile and it is disingenuous to attempt to justify such treatment by wielding the argument that abusing children is wrong.  Of course it is wrong.  But so is treating children as though the universe holds within it no harm or risk or randomness or stress.

Children are antifragile.

This is true of their biological systems – sometimes bones get broken and when they do those bones reform stronger; their immune system grows more capable at defending them from disease by encountering disease – and it is also true of their cognitive systems.

In order to become sophisticated thinkers, children need to encounter randomness, stress, emotional shock and the stark fact that they are at times simply wrong.  These encounters, handled correctly by the expert teacher, make children stronger.  The civilisations humanity has built over hundreds of thousands of years, the arts, the music, the insights, the knowledge, the skills, the disciplines and the unquenchable thirst for new enlightenment define our very souls.  Humanity has, through great endeavour and pain, established profound thoughts and ideas.  To engage with these ideas is difficult and requires sustained effort and the ability to overcome uncomfortable emotions.

Learning new ideas is hard.  It requires a significant shift in the knowledge structures and schema already embedded in an individual at the moment of meeting the new idea.  Many new ideas are uncomfortable, particularly when they require us to re-evaluate our own beliefs.  This discomfort is painful – to be told that you are wrong or to face such tricky ideas to grasp that it might take many years of very hard, very purposeful thinking is not an easy state of mind for most people to adopt.

The child who is treated as though their cognitive systems are fragile is the child who is always told they are correct.  They are the child whose parents and teachers will pussyfoot around them, never wanting to ask them to do anything difficult, never wanting to question and correct their naïve beliefs.  The fragile child is praised whenever they present an idea, no matter how foolish it is, no matter its utility.  And this treatment is often justified by claiming it is compassionate.  Claiming that feelings are more important than thoughts and ideas.  But it is not kind to praise the child who is incorrect, it serves only to make them ill-informed and frustrated.

Children are antifragile.  The expert teacher should carefully and deliberately manufacture scenarios for their pupils to meet tricky ideas and to feel discomfort in the moment for the long term gain of enlightenment.  The incorrect child should be told they are incorrect.  This creates an emotional shock that alerts the child to the fact that they better listen really carefully to the correct knowledge that the teacher will now explain to them.

Teachers should seek to make children truly resilient.  Children should be able to face tricky, sometimes hurtful, ideas head on so that they can overcome and continue to learn.  The randomness and stresses the expert teacher places on their pupils are calculated and careful, designed to make the child stronger and more knowledgeable.  This is what resilience means – the child who can grapple with ideas, debate, justify, adapt to new knowledge or put right those who are wrong.  The resilient child grows into the resilient adult who is not afraid of thoughts and ideas, who knows that harm exists but who is ready to take up arms against it and help make humanity better.

There is nothing resilient or moral about the education that some pupils face in schools with policies that instruct teachers to always praise or never point out a child is wrong or to award every child a medal on sports day.  There is nothing resilient about the child who has been conditioned to block out challenging ideas – the child who hits the block or mute button on their social media at the slightest hint of an opposing idea is not strong, they are weak and they will not cope well with the demands of life.

The case for antifragility was first put forward by Nassim Taleb in his 2012 book “Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder.”  Taleb describes systems in economics, business and society that are antifragile, which led me to think about antifragility as applied to children and learning.  In 2018, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt published “The coddling of the American mind.”  Lukianoff and Haidt also apply Taleb’s thinking to children.  It was attending a lecture given by Haidt last year that brought me to further think about the fact that children truly are antifragile and that this has been known in the teaching profession for a very long time as an item of simple common sense.  Whenever I speak with teachers about antifragility, the response is always that it is clear that pupils must carefully encounter tricky situations if they are to become free thinkers capable of navigating through life with autonomy and a sense of purpose.  Yet, so many schools and colleges have adopted policies that clearly position children as fragile.  These policies are counterproductive and are restricting the beautiful and meaningful intellectual journey that all pupils could be taking if viewed as antifragile.

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