By Julia Steiny
As America wrestles with improving its lackluster schools, we need to stop asking: How do we win the international test score competitions? We’ve taken that pursuit absolutely as far as we can go, and it’s not working. The question should be: What equips kids to be successful?
In his excellent work How Children Succeed, Paul Tough discovered that the answers to that very question had far more to do with mental health than with Common Core, blended learning or any education-specific strategy. God knows how mental health got so divorced from education, but it did. Clearly, depressed, traumatized, even merely upset kids don’t learn well. So you would think that cultivating the conditions for mental, social, and emotional health would best leverage efforts to improve academic health. Tough’s book led me to Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the psychological science of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which was designed to treat debilitating depression.
CBT works on undoing the effects of negative self-talk. Everyone has nasty messages in their heads: “I can’t do that.” Or: “I’m fat, stupid, poor, etc.” Or: “Bad things always happen to me.” CBT offers good mental-hygiene skills that can be taught to anyone, but think especially of middle school kids who become increasingly, and painfully, aware of themselves. Life may be hard, but kids’ ability to talk optimistically to themselves helps to avoid making real adversity worse than it already is. Rotten self-talk feeds depression and helplessness.
While Seligman’s CBT techniques are fascinating, I was most stunned by his cautionary introduction about what he considers to be the scourge of depression in America. He names three forces that explain why, according to mountains of evidence, Americans are far more depressed than they were several generations ago when the country was poorer and less powerful.
Reason # 1: In all cases, depression is a disorder of the “I.”
Encased in our own narcissism, too many of us fail to reach our own goals according to our own standards. Seligman writes, “In a society in which individualism is becoming rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable.” In our own eyes, none of us is adequately thin, rich, famous or smart. We can’t live up to standards set by celebrities. But if we can’t win, we don’t want to play. A kid can’t succeed if she already is telling herself she’s a full-on loser.
Reason #2: As “I” becomes awesomely important, “we” loses value.
In Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, the profoundly lonely adolescent Frankie keens for the “we of me.” Experts exhort us to understand how badly students need a sense of “belonging.” It’s a prerequisite to learning. And yet the culture has dismantled traditional social structures that once cultivated “we” (see: Bowling Alone), but put nothing in their place. Seligman has this to say:
“Individual failure used to be buffered by the second force, the large “we.” When our grandparents failed, they had comfortable spiritual furniture to rest in. They had, for the most part, their relationship to God, to a nation they loved, their relationship to a community and a large extended family. Faith in God, community, nation and the large extended family have all eroded in the last forty years, and the spiritual furniture we used to sit in has become threadbare.”
Only a counterbalancing “we” can address the narcissistic disorder of the “I.” Mental health is dependent on relationships, even networks of relationships. Every kid needs multiple adults — and other kids, of course — to care about them in good times and bad. Without close relationships, depression is right around the corner.
Reason # 3: The self-esteem movement feeds toxic narcissism.
Seligman loathes the self-esteem movement. He pegs its inception to be in the 1960s, when no one was supposed to feel badly about themselves, no matter what. Mind you, strong self-esteem is a fine thing — but only when it is an earned feeling gained by succeeding in school or work, or behaving well towards those you love. Generations before the 1960s read their children The Little Engine That Could to teach the idea that in the face of adversity, persistence and hard work could overcome obstacles.
As Seligman puts it, “This is a movement that made competition a dirty word. This is a movement that has led to less plain old hard work.” To boot, Seligman references the rich research showing that some of the highest self-esteem is found among violent criminals and gang leaders. He says “… depression and violence both come from this misbegotten concern: valuing how our young people feel about themselves more highly than how well they are doing in the world.”
It’s no favor to send kids with delusions of enormous self-worth into our tough world. What they really need is a reality-based sense of mastery. Teaching a kid persistence is hard, but it can be done and done kindly. Grit, resilience, impulse control, social skills all can be taught. Yes, teaching such disciplines is tons harder than being the kids’ friend and enabler. But that is what will help them gain strong mental health and to succeed.