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Lewis: Acceptable risk

We all have heard the aphorism “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” but it is unlikely that most parents make it a tenant of their child-rearing philosophy. Based on data coming out of universities, however, it might be something to consider.

Growing up, I can recall being left without a babysitter when I was 8. At 8, I would also walk home from school and be home for a couple of hours before my parents arrived home from work. By the time I was 11, I was riding my bike or taking a bus across town for my orthodontic appointments. By 14, I was going on unsupervised multi-day hiking/camping trips with friends.

Even though the crime rate has plummeted over the years, I would expect that my parents would be charged with child endangerment if they were raising me today. The idea of safety and what is an “acceptable risk” has fundamentally changed.



On the surface, that might seem like a good thing. We all want our kids to be “safe” so what is the problem with getting a babysitter or driving your kids everywhere? You can never be too safe — right?

While admirable in one dimension, colleges are now seeing the negative effects of over-protective parenting. Kids are arriving at college educationally ready for learning but they are not emotionally ready. They lack the resilience and independence to cope with life on their own. As one college professor put it “today’s 18-year-olds are like 12-year-olds from a decade ago.”

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Being able to appropriately deal with conflict, failure and struggles is a normal part of life. Psychologists have also found a direct correlation between college students’ declining resilience/independence and the rapid rise of mental health problems. From just 2010 to 2016 the number of students answering “yes” to the question “do you have a psychological disorder” has tripled for females and doubled for males.

Some schools are trying to tackle the problem head-on by offering classes like “Adulting 101” which teaches students how to cope with failure and conflict. Unfortunately, many schools are perpetuating the problem by setting up more ways for students to simply avoid conflict.

Every year I attend a dinner at my alma mater (University of Colorado Boulder) hosted by my former fraternity (Phi Gamma Delta). The current fraternity members seem to be great young men. This year they initiated a new policy where they were eliminating the “pledging” period for new members. The pledge period was usually one semester where prospective members had to learn various things about the fraternity’s history, pass tests, and participate in various group activities. This allows the members the time to ensure that each individual will be a good fit for the group. Potentially, this is also a period where hazing could occur, so their plan is to eliminate pledging altogether. If someone wants to join and the members say “yes” then he is in. No work, no effort, no risk of failure.



While often perceived as a major problem, hazing accounts, on average, for about one death per year. Yes, any death is bad, and we should work to stop hazing, but I don’t like their solution. Pledging a fraternity is like trying to join an athletic team or a music ensemble — it takes effort and the individual feels both the risk of failure and the pride of success. This process eliminates the risk of hazing but it also eliminates any feeling of accomplishment by the person joining. With no risk, there is no reward.

If we are concerned about safety, then we need to address this mental health crisis. In 2018, over 6,800 people from ages 10 to 24 committed suicide. That is an increase of 57.4% from just 10 years ago. We should all be aware that giving kids progressive levels of independence, letting them take appropriate risks, and letting them try (and fail) at new tasks is just as important as traditional education.

As a society, we need to recognize the critical importance of making all of our successive generations successful. If they fail, then we have failed them.

Mark Lewis, a Colorado native, had a long career in technology, including serving as the CEO of several tech companies. He retired from technology last year and is now writing thriller novels. Mark and his wife, Lisa, and their two Australian Shepherds — Kismet and Cowboy, reside in Edwards.


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