June/July/Aug 2013

Learned Helplessness

Dissecting the weird social fatalism of our child-rearing manuals.

Heather Havrilesky


It’s no coincidence that growing alarm over America’s decreasing global influence corresponds with a growing hysteria over our child-rearing practices. Believing that “the children are our future,” as Whitney Houston so helpfully put it, is not all that different from believing in, say, stock futures. The monitors of stock and early-developmental portfolios certainly face the same basic question: How big a chunk are you willing to lop off your bank account, your sanity, and your soul in order to ensure that the future looks half as shiny and promising as you expect it to?

Parenting tomes, though, have a funny way of sidestepping this dilemma. The authors of child-rearing manuals all seem to assume that you, the striving parent, have endless stores of wealth, energy, and passion for solving the most trivial problems. In the hands of these solicitous souls, even the simplest parenting concepts tend to expand outward in every direction, each complex vector forever approaching some absurd infinity: What did Whitney Houston mean when she urged us to “teach them well and let them lead the way”? Was she endorsing child-led homeschooling or more of a Waldorfian community-oriented slant? What’s easier, weaning a five-year-old or teaching him complex fractions? Should you attempt both at the same time? Is sleep training a form of fascism? What sorts of elaborate, exhausting parent-created craft projects are the best for fostering independence in young children?

At first glance, Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Mariner, $16) seems poised to join the hortatory ranks of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé. Predictably enough, the book opens with a scene from a prekindergarten classroom that’s embracing (yet another) revolutionary approach to child development called “Tools of the Mind.” Rather than focusing on academic achievement, Tough notes, the curriculum is designed to help children with “controlling their impulses, staying focused on the task at hand, avoiding distractions and mental traps, managing their emotions, [and] organizing their thoughts.” Anyone who’s even loosely familiar with the behavior of four-year-olds can understand how this approach makes more sense than, say, dual-immersion Korean or modeling quadratic equations.

The distinction between cognitive skills and less measurable “noncognitive” skills like curiosity, self-control, and tenacity somehow strikes Tough—who covers education policy for the New York Times Magazine—as groundbreaking. It turns out that IQ doesn’t automatically dictate a child’s destiny, and this is why Tough is wowed by a “new generation of researchers” who are studying “how parents affect their children; how human skills develop; how character is formed.” Tough continues: “Until recently . . . there has never been a serious attempt to use the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of childhood, to trace, through experiment and analysis, how the experiences of our early years connect to outcomes in adulthood.”

Despite such sweeping overstatements (which, to be fair, are absolutely de rigueur in single-subject nonfiction these days, and most particularly in parenting books), you can almost see the pleasure centers of the high-strung parental brain lighting up at the sight of those words: Science! Skills! Character! Organizing!

Anxiety around child rearing has reached an all-time high, Tough asserts, but we’re anxious about the wrong stuff. Instead of pushing our kids to “get ahead” academically—as a million competitive preschools and Kumon franchises might do—we should be emphasizing concrete psychological abilities and coping strategies that will make their success in life more likely. The ability to correctly spell ludicrous or point to the Mediterranean Sea on a map is far less predictive of long-term high achievement than, say, the ability to handle stress and deal with setbacks.

Sixty-odd years after Harry Harlow’s surrogate-mother experiments demonstrated that rhesus monkeys starved for maternal attention would bond with a plausibly monkey-like substitute figure made out of cloth, we return to the same terrain (albeit with new tools for measuring biochemistry): Neuroscientists at McGill University found that rats who are licked and groomed by either their own mothers or a foster mother grow up to be “braver and bolder and better adjusted” than baby rats who were treated to less licking and grooming—and they also acquired a healthy stress-response function in their DNA thanks to the active tongues of their generous moms. Likewise, an NYU researcher found that when a child’s mother is “inattentive or unresponsive,” that child’s cortisol levels spike dramatically in response to stress, indicating that the child has trouble handling difficulties. When a mother is responsive to a child’s needs, though, the child’s cortisol levels barely react, indicating that the child regulates stress more effectively. In other words, inattentive parenting leaves a lasting imprint on children’s biology, compromising their ability to face future challenges.

Tough often delves into contemporary developmental research, but, to his credit, he traces each concept to anecdotal observations of real children—and ones who are much less privileged than the typical protagonists of raise-your-kids-better handbooks. Tough treks out to observe the learning environments of children who are growing up in Hunters Point in San Francisco and on the South Side of Chicago, examining the multitude of emotional barriers to achievement they face. Over the course of the first two chapters, he offers vivid reported accounts about the struggles of specific children, teachers, and administrators across the spectrum of socioeconomic class. He rounds out each story with insights into what keeps kids engaged and focused in a school setting.

Tough also reports that developmental challenges in this country turn out to be alarmingly class specific. According to government data compiled since 2001, in fact, “in every state, in every city, at every grade level, in almost every school, students from low-income homes were doing much worse than students from middle-class homes—they were two or three grade levels behind, on average, by the time they left middle school.”

But it’s not until the third chapter, an exploration of a public school’s embrace of competitive chess, that Tough hits his stride. Here we meet Elizabeth Spiegel, a very odd and determined chess teacher with a wide assortment of misfit toys under her purview. Spiegel and her students are not only the most colorful subjects of Tough’s inquiry, but they also offer the most concrete examples of how noncognitive skills can lead to success in activities previously seen as direct measures of IQ. “If you really want to get better at chess,” Spiegel tells Tough, “you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.” Spiegel’s approach might seem a bit blasphemous to parents versed in the bible of self-esteem: Instead of coaching kids to simply believe in their abilities, she walks them through every move, points out mistakes, and scolds them harshly for each one. Then she moves on in a positive tone. Spiegel walks a fine line, Tough admits; she wants her students to “take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them.” She must be on to something, though; her public, urban school boasts the best record of any middle-school chess program in the country. Tellingly, when one of her students, James Black, becomes a national master, instead of praising his victories, Spiegel says, “He has worked so hard, so patiently, for so long. That is what I respect the most about James.”

Most handbooks of upwardly mobile parenting seem to presuppose that inside each child an entrepreneurial conquistador lies in wait. But is this what we actually want for our children? At a time when corruption and greed are so much a part of our social fabric that they’re hardly acknowledged as aberrations, should we foster in our kids a sense of responsibility that will lead to good citizenship, or the sense of entitlement that will lead to a living wage? Should we hope for professional success, creative fulfillment, or just survival? Should we encourage and reward a peace-loving, cooperative spirit, or a flair for hand-to-hand combat?

Tough has a clear concern for instilling socially palatable values in children. In fact, by the last chapter, he backs off from the title and pretty much the whole organization of his book, and retreats to the higher ground you’d expect from Jonathan Kozol’s anguished oeuvre on the inextricable bond between public education and poverty. Instead of taking lessons from kids dodging bullets in the ghetto and applying them to the upper-middle-class teenagers dodging tennis balls at the local country club, Tough ends on the opposite note. “If you’re an undergraduate at Harvard, your struggles with the challenges of character might land you in a less-than-inspiring investment-banking job,” he writes. “If you’re a teenager growing up on the South Side of Chicago, though, they might land you in jail.” Any rational analysis of education reform, Tough insists, must include an unvarnished look at poverty in America. “What was once a noisy and impassioned national conversation about how best to combat poverty has faded almost to silence,” he writes.

In other words, it’s probably time for upper-middle-class parents to stop fixating on their own children and take an interest in children in general. (They are our future, remember?) After all, if there are plenty of books—on parenting or any other subject—crowded onto your reclaimed-oak bookshelves, that alone means it likely won’t matter what any of those books say about child rearing; your kids are assured of some success, relatively speaking. But with the American CEO now making a staggering 380 times the income of the average worker and 22 percent of American children living below the federal poverty level ($23,000 a year for a family of four), a book like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother starts to look less like a luxurious distraction and more like a tool of class oppression. Do we want to populate our planet with self-concerned, ultracompetitive warriors, or compassionate citizens? At the end of the day, taking all of those parenting books down to the local used-book store and trading them in for one dog-eared copy of Kozol’s Amazing Grace might be the single best parenting decision you can make.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).

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