I am back after a few days of visiting Tybee Island in Georgia with my family and some members of our homeschool group. It was a lovely trip, and we got to take classes through the 4-H center there that really highlighted the very unique ecosystems in Georgia’s barrier islands.
One thing I have been reading during the drive to and from our vacation spot was “The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression And Build Lifelong Resilience” by Martin P. Seligman, PhD. This book is really fascinating, and I was interested in reading it mainly due to this quote: “ As puberty approaches, your child’s theory of the world crystalizes. She may now be pessimistic, passive and introverted. As the routine but painful rejections and failures of puberty start, depression reaches alarming proportions. Almost one-third of contemporary thirteen-year-olds have marked depressive symptoms, and by the time they finish high school almost 15 percent have had an episode of major depression.”
Grabs you, doesn’t it?
Anyway, one chapter that was very interesting in this book was the chapter on self-esteem and Dr. Seligman’s theory that “By emphasizing how a child feels, at the expense of what a child does – mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom – and meeting challenge – parents and teachers are making this generation of children more vulnerable to depression.”
In Dr. Seligman’s view, people who suffer from depression have four kinds of challenges including behavioral (passive, indecisive, helpless); emotional (sad); somatic (disruption of sleep and eating) and cognitive (they are not worthy of anything and their life is not worth living). Only the last part, the cognitive part of depression, can be tied to self esteem because in Dr. Seligman’s view even those who feel badly about themselves does not lead directly to causing failure in life. However, the belief that problems will last forever and ever causes children to give up trying, which leads to failure, which does lead to self esteem being lowered.
Instead of trying to teach a child how to “feel good” about themselves, or setting up situations in which a child never fails, Dr. Seligman advocates an approach held by many psychologists called “doing well” (in place of “feeling well”). In this approach, children are taught to change how they think about failure, to be encouraged to be tolerant of frustration, and to have their persistence rewarded rather than just their success.
In other words, Dr. Seligman has targeted five areas in which children need our help:
1. To help our children live for something bigger than themselves. The more a child believes (or an adult) that “I am all that matters” of course, the more blows will hurt. Things such as religion, duty to the nation, community, family used to be buffers against depression, in Dr. Seligman’s view and in the view of many in the psychology community, and now we need to figure out what to do when “self has become all important”.
2. To not rescue our children from negative feelings. Dr. Seligman writes, “ But feeling bad has critical uses, and all of them are needed for learning optimism and for escaping helplessness.”
3. To help our children deal with frustration and challenge.
4. To help our children learn to deal with overcoming helplessness. “Any complicated task your child might undertake consists of several steps, each of which is more or less easy to fail at. “ If your child fails at a subset, the child can learn to give up and leave the situation, which becomes learned helplessness. Or your child can stay in the situation and act and try to change the situation, which eventually becomes mastery. Children need to fail. If we protect our children from failure, then we deny them the chance for mastery.
5. To set clear limits and enforce those limits for our children. “The more freedom the child had, the lower his self-esteem.”
Interesting read, with more to come.