The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

Shielding Children from Hard Truths Hurts Rather Than Helps

To teach resilience and build character, don’t hide hard reality from kids.

Well-meaning parents sometimes try to shield their kids from unpleasant facts. They assume that the tough details of reality will upset the children and inflict grave harm. But evidence to the contrary shows how mistaken they are. Efforts to sugarcoat reality or shield children from harsh truths unintentionally hamper their ability to learn from misfortune and develop the resilience that makes negotiating adult life easier.

I must disagree with the well–meaning mother who penned an op–ed in this morning’s Washington Post. She advocated, “Sparing kids from catastrophe for as long as possible.” The kid in question was her 8–year–old daughter. The unpleasant facts from which she wished to spare her included the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370 and the presumed deaths of all 239 passengers on board, the invasion of Crimea by Vladimir Putin, the shooting deaths of protestors, the car and suicide bombings in the Middle East. The litany of horrors she wished to hide from her daughter was endless.

The Mother's Side Effect

I felt sorry for the mother. I felt sad for the child because Mom’s good intentions were robbing her of exactly the kinds of lessons that would help her grow up. Mayhem and misfortune exist. So does evil, malice, and catastrophe due to natural forces for which no one is to blame. One can explain harsh realities to children in a manner appropriate for their age. Children easily figure out when they are being deceived. To pretend that harsh realities don’t exist ultimately breaches trust. Inadvertently, the op–ed writer’s “protective layer” that she’d created around her daughter was breached. The predictable result was guilt over the deception: the protective layer “has forever been torn open. I can’t patch it, and now she knows I made it.”

The Hull Truth

We learn resilience by facing adversity and getting past it. One’s innate resilience differs from person to person. One individual might cringe over things that others dismiss as nothing, which only illustrates how attitude is all in one’s head. For instance, Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” By this he meant that how we think about something shapes how we perceive it, and especially the emotional weight we assign to it. In his Meditations Marcus Aurelius made the point even more succinctly, saying “Life is opinion.” The Roman general practiced the ancient discipline of ataraxia, the art of maintaining an even keel. He kept notebooks by which to drill himself in order to change his point of view, and he rehearsed his responses to predictable challenges so that he could achieve the goals he wanted.

How then are modern people supposed to react to unhappy news? It is of course possible to be happy in the face of woes. In fact, the better one’s grip on reality the easier it is to find happiness within one’s lot. Reality and optimism go hand in hand: optimistic people don’t see the world less negatively than it actually is, but see themselves as able to cope with its setbacks and move forward. Pollyannas imagine that everything is fine. But they are either naïve, oblivious to the reality around them, or else live in a dreamland of denial.

Hide and Seek

In The Republic Plato leads his friends out of a cave into the sun. At first, the light is blinding and they want to go back to the familiar comfort of the dark. This darkness is the metaphoric equivalent of willfully staying ignorant of life’s vicissitudes. In a short time Plato’s friends become accustomed to the sun. They adapt, which means that we can, too. Plato’s point is that we can chose how to react to negative events. It helps to keep in mind that nothing too good or too bad lasts too long.

The impulse to protect kids from unpleasant facts is similar to the self–esteem fad currently practiced by educators. The idea rests on the assumption, not backed by any evidence, that high self–esteem must lead to high academic achievement. Teachers fear that honestly acknowledging inevitable childhood failures would make kids “feel bad,” irreparably damage their self–esteem, and jeopardize their academic future. Accordingly, classroom students read titles such as Everyone is Special, and undertake projects like All About Me that itemize their commendable qualities.

Resident Evil

The approach has not worked, which is what one would expect of a policy based on no evidence. Well–intentioned as it may have been, the gambit has failed to boost student achievement. In fact, it did precisely the opposite by undercutting the way the brain learns from mistakes and revises its expectations. The “trophies for everyone approach motivates students to amass more unearned rewards, instilled a sense of entitlement, and gave them an inflated sense of their abilities. Imagine handing a fisherman a fish. You might think you are doing him a favor, but you are robbing him of the pleasure of achievement, of catching it himself.

Follow me @Cytowic on Twitter,  Google+, Facebook, or visit my Website

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

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