Tim Lott

Life is un­fair and it’s the job of par­ents to en­sure chil­dren un­der­stand that

The Guardian - Family - - Front page - Tim Lott tim­lot­twriter.word­press.com

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. 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.

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