It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
It is fast becoming the dominant ethos in our society that we must shield people from every possible harm, whether physical or psychological, real or perceived. Unfortunately this futile task renders us vulnerable as we shall see.
There are words that are no longer acceptable in the politically correct lexicon. We had the farcical example of the language guide developed by the Diversity Council for Qantas. Among the other nonsensical recommendations it seems no longer permissible to use the collective noun “guys” because it has connotations of masculinity, never mind the fact in most of the workplaces I’m acquainted with “guys” is a term of familiarity used by both men and women and meant to include both men and women. Mind you some of the other recommendations seem to suggest that reference to gender itself is inappropriate! Qantas staff were advised not to use such words as “husband “and “wife” or “mum” and “dad” lest it offend LGBTI households. (We must indeed be a wealthy country if we can afford to waste money on a Diversity Council in order instruct us on such weighty matters!) So some of us are so fragile we need to be sheltered from words we don’t want to hear.
Even worse for a liberal democracy it seems also that many need to be sheltered from ideas that are counter to their own. Universities that were once the generators of new ideas and recognised for the quality of intellectual debate, now shelter students from ideas they might find confronting. Our new generation of scholars are protected by “trigger warnings” and “safe places” to avoid having to seriously consider opposing viewpoints.
It is barely twelve months since we mourned the death of that brilliant cartoonist, Bill Leak. Leak in an iconic cartoon tried to point to the fact that in remote indigenous communities children are often neglected by their parents, particularly their fathers. There is overwhelming evidence to support that assertion but Leak was vilified for drawing attention to this undeniable but unpleasant fact.
Then Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, was similarly vilified by pointing out the fact that although Lebanese migrants have made a great contribution to Australia, that 22 of the 33 people who have been charged with terrorism offences in this country come from Lebanese Muslim backgrounds. Whilst Dutton’s facts are indisputable he incurred the wrath of the politically correct for daring to publicly air them.
Why should anybody be criticised for telling us the truth? The politically correct stance was well demonstrated by Greens Senator, Nick McKim who in responding to Dutton’s statement asserted:
We are not disputing the numbers that he quoted. Undoubtedly the advice he has got is accurate. But just because something is fact doesn’t mean that it is reasonable or productive to talk about it.
But surely it is cowardly and unproductive to shy away from such facts!
How on earth are we going to properly engage with the real world (and hopefully improve it) if we steadfastly avoid what we don’t want to hear because it makes us feel uncomfortable?
For similar reasons, despite the importance of the subject, people are shying away from having a discussion on immigration – what should the annual intake be and where we should source such immigrants.
Or take the case of remote indigenous communities where violence, domestic and otherwise, child abuse, unemployment, school attendance, drug and alcohol abuse, and a host of health problems are devastatingly high compared with other Australian communities. This is a blight on our society but by and large is ignored by most of the Australian population. Those who highlight these issues are often (like Bill Leak) accused of racism. So instead of dealing with the underlying causes (easy access to welfare and lack of indigenous responsibility among many others) we take offense and resort to name-calling instead.
We seem to have a clash of ideals here. We would do well to remember that we, in Western societies, are dealing with a very pampered generation that has rarely heard the word ‘no’. Those of this generation are used to getting what they want. Many have been greatly indulged which has temporarily blinded them to the fact that life can be difficult. They have been unduly sheltered from life’s difficulties so that when they inevitable have to confront them they are ill-equipped.
In this regard I have often quoted M Scott Peck who began his great little book The Road Less Travelled in this way:
Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
Now I am in no way suggesting that we should school our children to be afraid of life and shy away from the myriad of experiences it presents us. Nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t take reasonable steps to protect our children from likely danger. What I am proposing is that we should prepare our children for the inevitable slights and setbacks they will encounter in their lives.
In an essay in The Atlantic, titled The Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and lawyer Greg Lukianoff wrote:
In a variety of ways children born after 1980 – the millennials – got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.
This meant the removal from the playground of all those traditional sources of fun and healthy exercise like swings, see-saws and climbing frames. And on no account should you climb trees! But a fall or two in the playground (and in my own case a couple of broken bones) is an appropriate inoculation to deal with those falls, both physical and metaphorically, you will no doubt encounter in later life. (To read more about this issue see my archived essay Where are the Free Range Kids?)
We must be realistic and acknowledge that no matter how much we care for our children we do not have the capacity to shelter them from all of life’s vicissitudes. So the best strategy we can adopt to ensure that our children are competent to endure the inevitable trials they will encounter in life is to build their resilience. I will come back to this strategy and how it might be achieved in a little while.
The Buddhist philosopher and ecologist, Joanna Macy writes:
It is essential that we develop our inner resources. We have to look at things as they are, painful and overwhelming as that may be, for no healing can begin until we are fully present to our world, until we can learn to sustain the gaze.
A current issue of concern for parents is cyber bullying.
Cyber bullying seems very pervasive and quite pernicious. The fact that it is so easy to do and can be done anonymously would lead me to believe no matter what preventative measures we put in place it is unlikely to be stamped out. Consequently I believe that our most useful strategy is to try to improve the resilience of our children so that our children are robust enough to not be so effected by its insidious impacts.
I have written in the past about the concerns I have for our basic freedoms being eroded by our increasing sensitivity (and the often manufactured offense in response) to perceived slights and insults. This is well-illustrated by section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act which makes it an offence to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people”. This is a particularly parlous statute because it allows perceived victims the opportunity to self-identify as being offended. This provides an easy way out for those holding on to unreasonable viewpoints. They merely have to say (without any necessity to justify such a reaction) that they are “offended” by a particular statement or idea and the law shields them from having to provide any counter arguments. It was on this basis that Bill Leak (mentioned previously) was vilified.
Now at this juncture I must resort to reiterating the wisdom of the good Dr Phil.
There are two pertinent points I seek to make here.
Firstly as Phil rightfully says, “Offense is never given, it is only taken.”
It is wrong to assume that we are somehow “hurt” by the words of another. Those that assert that they are so injured reflect a fragile sense of self. What’s more their proclaimed sense of “hurt” is not essentially so much about a sense of psychological injury but an attempt to manipulate others through their behavioural response.
As I have written many times before, our sense of well-being is not so much determined by what happens to us but how we interpret what happens to us. Life inevitably deals us all some bad cards. But in the end how we manage this is largely in our own hands.
The good Dr Phil taught me the following:
MYTH – How we feel and how we react is caused by
what has happened to us.
REALITY – Negative feelings and reactions are learned responses that have become part of our repertoire of responses through reinforcement. Once having been learned, they continue to be subconsciously reinforced each time they are selected from this repertoire as strategies for changing one’s world – even though the outcomes may prove to be unsatisfactory.
Phil counsels me that human behaviour is often better understood by not concentrating so much on what precedes it but what happens after. To understand this better let me refer you to a little book by John Narciso and David Burkett, Declare Yourself.
In this book Narciso and Burkett talked about “get-my–way–behaviours”. These behaviours include using victim responses to gain the sympathy of, or create a sense of guilt or fear in, others in order to have such people respond in ways more favourable to the perceived victims.
They drew on the work of Robert McKinley, a psychiatrist in San Antonio.
Most get-my-way techniques can be lumped under three broad headings: helplessness, suffering, and anger. These are learned responses to interpersonal situations that aren’t going the way we want them to go.
And of course taking offense is a classic form of suffering. Under this scheme, in order to manipulate others emotionally (whether consciously or unconsciously) I make noises about being affronted so that people might feel sorry for me or acquire a sense of guilt and thus help me change the situation more in my favour. That it is a successful technique can be evidenced by the frequency of its use.
This particular form of get-my-way behaviour contains an internal incongruence. Suppose you say something that (I erroneously believe) hurt my feelings. I then blame you for an intentional affront. But my negative behaviour that comes as a result of this imagined affront I blame on you as well. That is I believe that you determine my behaviour, but I allow myself to believe that your behaviour is entirely at your discretion.
As the good Dr Phil says:
The negative emotional behaviour of others that manifests in aggressive or obnoxious behaviour towards oneself is viewed as deliberate and intentional, however, the negative emotional behaviour of oneself that manifests in aggressive or obnoxious behaviour in response to that other person’s behaviour is generally attributed to the other person as well!
“Your negative behaviour is deliberate and intentionally offensive. Mine is merely a natural and necessary ‘defense’ against yours and is therefore caused by you.”
Now I have tried to better define the underlying causes behind our growing tendency to avoid having to deal with the uncomfortable aspects of the world, the issues that challenge our underlying assumptions and beliefs on which we construct our particular world-view.
So let us now move on to the steps that we might take to increase resilience so that our sense of self is not threatened by contrary views and how we might avoid being the victims of get-my-way behaviours.
Because I believe it holds the most promise and provides the best societal outcomes, I will restrict my comments to how best promote resilience in our young people. Much of this relates to parenting.
Firstly a child’s robustness is going to be immensely improved if they come to understand that they are not responsible for how other people feel! If they learn that lesson they will be relatively impervious to the impact of get-my-way behaviours.
Unfortunately most children learn that they are responsible for other people’s emotions from their parents. That is because most parents use such emotional manipulation themselves in rearing their children. How many times are we as children told things like:
- I am so disappointed by your school exam results
- I feel ashamed when you can’t do well enough to qualify for a law degree,
- I feel humiliated when you don’t bring friends home. Are you ashamed of our household?
- I feel like a failure when you couldn’t make the track and field team after all our efforts and arranging special coaching for you,
- I feel let down when you don’t even make an effort to try out for the school musical.
So time and again as children we are assailed by our parents (and others) trying to get us to do what they want by emotional manipulation that teaches us that we are somehow responsible for how other people feel. This is patently wrong and sets us up for further manipulation by others.
Thus the first thing we can do as parents is to cease to manipulate our children on the basis that they are somehow responsible for our feelings. Any emotional response I have as a parent to the behaviour of my child is either a response I have chosen or (more likely) one I have learnt from my own parenting where my parents used the same techniques to manipulate me.
If our children learn that they are not responsible for how other people feel, (as demonstrated by their parents,) the emotional blackmail of get-my-way behaviours is more likely to be thwarted.
The second thing we can do as parents is to give our children a realistic assessment of where they stand in the world. In this regard the self-esteem movement has a lot to answer for. In the late twentieth century child psychologists convinced us that it was essential that our children feel good about themselves. Now there is a lot of truth in this. But unfortunately, as parents, we often took this advice to great extremes. In fact we often took away the message that the only way our child could feel good about itself was to make it feel special.
Consequently our girls and boys became princesses and princes. Every one of them that participated in sport or art or scholastic activities were champions, prima divas and Einsteins. But the world is quick to make more realistic assessments of our children once they are away from the doting eyes of parents. The champions are disappointed to rapidly realize they are not world beaters.
Resilience is about facing up to reality and being satisfied with who we really are, warts and all. Certainly encourage your children to strive to do better. Certainly celebrate their successes and commiserate with them in their failures. But then apply the third strategy, which is the most important of all.
What is this third strategy? It is simply this. You must offer your children unconditional love.
Well, perhaps I mislead you – this might be simple, but for some it is not easy. Some parents, who are themselves insecure, attempt to live out their lives vicariously through their children. Their children need to be special because from their psychologically stunted view of the world this is the only way they can be significant also. But this is both unfair on their children and a very doubtful strategy to enhance the parent’s sense of self-worth.
So what does it mean to love your child (or indeed anyone) unconditionally?
It means nothing will diminish your love. It means your child does not have to do anything to earn your love. Your love is not given because your child is talented, loving or beautiful. Your love is not given as a reward because your child meets your expectations or desires. Your love is given because this is your child and no matter what happens your love will never be withdrawn.
That is the greatest security you can give your child, and as a result the most important thing you can do to promote its resilience. This is not only a parental attribute that helps your child. Children will often cultivate friends who are loving and unjudgmental who will affirm the worth of the child irrespective of its circumstances which will also reinforce its resilience.
So then in summary what should we do as parents to help bolster the resilience of our children?
- Demonstrate to our children that they are not responsible for the emotional responses of others.
- Help our children have a realistic understanding of their place in the world.
- And above all, offer them unconditional love.