We want more for our children than healthy bodies. We want them to have lives filled with friendship and love and challenges. We also want them to be resilient in the face of the setbacks that are an inevitable part of growing up. However, an obstacle is eroding our children's natural state of activity and optimism and that is pessimism. Psychologist Martin Seligman has conducted research suggesting that we are in the midst of an epidemic of pessimism and suffering its most serious consequence; depression.
Seligman targets the contemporary self-esteem movement as a factor which has unwittingly contributed to the problem of pessimistic children. While striving to bolster children's self-esteem is a laudable goal, the emphasis on how a child feels, at the expense of what a child does, can make as child more vulnerable to pessimism and depression. Seligman believes that praise, in the absence of real achievement or mastery on the part of the child, will soon be ignored as insincere flattery. If children are indiscriminately and lavishly praised for all endeavours, whether successful or not, they soon learn the difference between real and false achievement. The roots of genuine self-esteem lie in a sense of mastery or the realization that "I can do it!"
For example, much to the their delight, two children are given the biggest Lego set they have ever seen. They both immediately sit on the floor and begin to assemble a spaceship. As the older sister quickly and methodically puts the pieces together, the younger brother strives to emulate her. He is several years younger, can't keep up with his older sister, and becomes increasingly agitated as each section he builds falls apart. Dad, whose heart is in the right place, assures him that his spaceship is "wonderful, the best ever made," etc. However, the younger brother knows that his ship is not wonderful and, even worse, concludes that not only can he not build a spaceship, but "I can't do anything right." A more helpful response, on the part of Dad, might be to explain to his young son that his sister is older and that he will build sturdier structures when he is older. Dad could also validate his son's feelings, making it clear that he understands how badly his son feels. There is nothing inherently wrong in failing; it may deflate self-esteem for awhile, but it is not catastrophic. Finally, it is crucial that Dad counter his son's faulty generalization that "I can't do anything right." Dad could point out and encourage his son to identify tasks that he does well. Building a strong Lego spaceship must be put into the perspective of a lifetime of learning new challenges; some of which will be met with temporary failure, some of which will be mastered easily and some of which may never be mastered. Seligman views these the techniques as providing a kind of psychological immunization for children against pessimism and later depression. In fact, Seligman's work was inspired by his childhood hero, Jonas Salk who pioneered the use of Polio vaccine for immunizing children in the early 1950's.
In addition, Seligman describes our "feel good" society in which we strive to avoid feelings of anger, sadness and anxiety as a source of pessimism and depression in children. While these feelings are painful, they also serve a number of useful functions. They can signal that something is wrong and goad us to take action. Matching oneself against a challenge just barely within one's grasp can also lead to a positive state, often referred to as "flow." It might occur when skating without holding a parent's hand for the first time or printing one's own name correctly or even taking those first steps as a baby. As young children instinctively know, life without anxiety or challenge is not the good life; it is a life devoid of flow. Negative feelings also help to build persistence. For example, in order for a child to learn to ride to bicycle it is necessary to fail, to feel badly and to try repeatedly until success occurs.
Children learn the value of persistence. The sense of mastery experienced by the child is exhilarating for the child and a real joy for the parents to observe!
Seligman concludes that by cushioning feeling bad, we have made it harder for our children to feel good and to experience "flow". By circumventing feelings of failure, we have made it more difficult for them to experience mastery. By blunting warranted sadness and anxiety, we may be putting our children at risk for unwarranted depression. Seligman, in closing, quotes from The Good Luck Pony (Koda-Callan, 1990).
"You were determined and stuck with it. That was what brought you luck, said her instructor." From then on the little girl wore the Good Luck Pony every time she went riding...it reminded her that it was her own effort that brought her luck. And from that day on she never forgot it."
Dr. Rochford conducts a private counselling practice with her husband Dr. Gordon Davidson. Questions to 542-0660.
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