During a recent junior varsity football game, a player from the opposing team took his helmet off while on the field during a timeout. In such an instance, according to the rules, “the player must leave the game for at least one down.”

When the player did not leave the game, the sideline referee informed our coaching staff that the head referee “let it slide.” The sideline ref then added, sarcastically, “Great way to teach the kid a lesson.”

It was a minor infraction. Parents, teachers, and coaches can certainly relate to letting such “little things” slide because, in the big picture, we are faced with more significant issues that we can’t overlook.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if adults let too much slide these days — as if we’re afraid kids can’t handle any punishment. Problem is, ignoring even small life lessons now might contribute to kids’ inability to handle the big problems later.

“[Kids] have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out,” according to Psychology Today, “to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention.”

“So now, here’s what we have,” continues the article. “Young people, 18 years and older, going to college still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, still feeling that if a problem arises they need an adult to solve it.”

This unwillingness or incapacity of young people to deal with adversity has become a major topic of discussion lately. Baby-boomer parents coddle their kids too much, say many critics. High school and college students lack coping skills, complain others.

“Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities,” writes Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in a recent Atlantic magazine article. “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub [college] campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

“Trigger warnings” are the most palpable examples of this phenomenon. These are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response,” such as cautioning students about the descriptions of physical abuse in The Great Gatsby lest they recall negative memories for some students.

The rise of trigger warnings, explain Lukianoff and Haidt, presumes “an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”

Not everyone agrees, however, that trigger warnings are a sign of students’ weaknesses.

“College students, particularly those who are in their late teens and early 20s,” writes Libby Nelson, “are expected to act like adults while being supervised like children; as the price of college goes up, they’re also increasingly seen as paying customers, and they’re starting to act like it.”

“The argument about trigger warnings isn’t just about trauma and mental health,” explains Nelson. “It’s about the demands students increasingly feel empowered to make and the confusion universities are facing in responding.”

Still, the emergence of a college culture where the students have increasing control over classroom discussions is not unlike other environments — including high schools and football fields — where kids are allowed to avoid certain rules. What gives young people the right — or the knowledge — to seek exemptions from uncomfortable situations?

“If you don’t want to read the books and develop the skills, don’t take the class,” writes Hall of Fame basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar. “Don’t attend the college. Spend the rest of your life huddled among those who agree with you. But know that that is not thinking — it’s sleeping.”

Which recalls our original scenario — the referee who turned a blind eye to the rule-breaking football player. Two people were at fault here: the kid who broke the rule and the ref who declined to enforce it.

The kid probably didn’t know the rule to begin with, but the ref did, putting the responsibility squarely on his shoulders. As the sideline official implied, the kid will never learn the rule until an adult holds him accountable. It shouldn’t matter how unhappy or uncomfortable the youngster feels about it.

In the end, isn’t that the job of adults — to teach kids about life’s challenges and how decisions have consequences?

Muhammad Ali, another famous athlete, said it concisely: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

We need more kids like Muhammad Ali. But more importantly, we need adults to step up as trainers.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.