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Those who evangelise about teaching children resilience are typically rightwing commentators who believe children should go to the school of hard knocks to “acquire” it. By this token, to take it to extremes, being bullied does you no end of good because it “knocks the edges off you”.
However, throwing you to the wolves does not make you resilient. It makes you dog meat. “Toughening up” doesn’t mean maximising pain in the hope that you will end up inoculated from its effects. Yes, learning resilience is important. However, not only has it been misunderstood, it also seems to have dropped down the parenting agenda (perhaps because of the painful memories of people who, like me, grew up being told to “get on with it and not make a fuss”).
Parents now can be over-empathetic in the way my parents’ generation could be under-empathetic. Many parents want to be their children’s friends, which is fine, but insufficient. You have to be their parents, too, and that means making them do things they don’t want to do and, more crucially, exposing them, sooner or later, to truths that they won’t find comfortable.
It is true that all children are special, simply because they are children. But most adults are not special, and children end up as adults pretty quickly. Life then can be difficult and even disappointing. The shock of this may account for the emergence of the “snowflake” generation of university students, who are so delicate they can’t handle controversial ideas being put forward in their lectures. Adolescent mental illness is going through the roof – another sign that resilience is on the slide.
The roots of this fragility run deep in modern culture. To combat it, we need a Buddhist rather than a Panglossian approach to the world. “Life is wonderful, you’re special, and if you are a good boy/girl, life will be amazing for ever” is not a message designed to aid bouncing back from failure or confronting catastrophe. Resilience is not about feeding ego – telling your children how wonderful they are – but strengthening it.
To achieve this strengthening, our collective vision of the way the world works needs rebalancing. Sooner or later, life has to be faced head on, and if it takes you too much by surprise, you will crumble. This is why what psychologists call the “just world myth” – “If I’m good, only good things will happen to me” – has to be resisted.
This may sound like a pessimistic vision, but it isn’t. It is one that is lodged deep in religious traditions. If, as the Buddha said, life is suffering – although I would substitute “suffering” with “unfair” – every good day is one to be thankful for. The Christian message is also about the acceptance of injustice – for who was more unfairly punished than Jesus, as he went willingly to his fate?
It is in gratitude, and being prepared for the worst that resilience lies. Promises of happy endings, or happy beginnings and happy middles are all well and good. But they set children up for a life of disappointment that they may not know how to deal with.
I am not suggesting we should tell our children that life is terrible. Life is wonderful – when it’s wonderful. I’m suggesting we make it clear that life is always going to be unfair. There is the unfairness of genes, of poverty, of looks, of health, of accident. The world you are born into is incurably skewed. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight injustice – we should – only that we are never going to get rid of it because it is intrinsic to being.
It is not just that saying “you can be whatever you want to be” is wrong. Far less is in our control than we think – the most you can do is try your hardest and do the right thing. After that, it is out of your hands. Once you realise that, there is nothing more to be anxious about.
By Tim Lott
1 December 2017