The Fear of Mollycoddling

Recently I was a guest at a planning meeting for a certain school and ended up in a session where we discussed how we can better support students in terms of their wellbeing. We were shown a news report highlighting the fact that the suicide rate in professionals of this particular discipline is four times higher than the general population. One of the major factors mentioned in the news report was that professionals in this discipline are very unlikely to seek support from anyone when they are struggling, having been trained too well to be self-sufficient while they were students.

Later, we discussed in small groups ways to support student wellbeing, especially with regard to helping them develop skills they can take forward into their professional lives, such as time-management. It was a heartwarming thing to see academics so concerned with the wellbeing of their students.

However, a small number of people expressed concern that giving students support might be “mollycoddling” them. They worried that students wouldn’t learn the coping skills needed to deal with demanding professional lives if they were given support. I do agree that it is important for students to learn those coping skills, but I am not sure that it is entirely healthy to respond to the fear of mollycoddling by not giving support.

Some lecturers I have met in other disciplines in the past seem to think that by refusing to give support they are doing the students good. They seem to think that if a student asks for support they are just lazy and expecting the lecturer to do it for them. For example, I talked to a student who asked a lecturer about one of the expectations for an assignment, but the lecturer refused to give the information and just said “it’s in the handbook”. Another student was confused by an assignment question and the lecturer said something like, “Well if you had done any preparation you would know what the definitions of those concepts were”.

But most students are not lazy most of the time. The first student in the previous paragraph had showed me the handbook itself and the information in it was contradictory, and I encouraged them to seek help from the lecturer. The second student had been in the MLC every day for the previous week going over all the resources at their disposal before they asked the lecturer. They were anything but lazy.

Admittedly there are a small number of students who actually are lazy, but you just can’t make the assumption that your student today is one of them. There is no telling whether a student is asking because they always hope someone will do it for them, or because they’ve tried everything they can themselves now they need your help.

My greatest fear is not that I might be mollycoddling a lazy student. No, my greatest fear is that I might be teaching someone that it is wrong to seek support. This was one of the identified causes of the high suicide rate originally: a lack of ability to seek support. It seems to me that for some students, receiving support today could mean the difference between life and death.

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3 Responses

  1. Fiona Brammy says:

    David, what a read! I am a little shocked that we have staff who don’t feel that support is fundamental.

  2. Peter Murdoch says:

    Sometimes I wonder if what appears as laziness is simply the fact that the right domino hasn’t been triggered by the right support so that comprehension falls into place. Surely all educational activities, in classes or not, ought to be designed to support students to find understanding and through this the confidence to support what matters in the world around them.

    • David Butler says:

      I like that way of saying it Peter. They might actually be working very hard, just not in a way that makes it possible for them to understand or complete the task they have been given.