The Real Problem with Teached Helplessness

what_now_1On Tuesday I posted an article called “12 Loving Ways You Can Ruin Your Kid’s Career,” which has gotten a bit of chatter. Most readers understood pretty clearly the satire. There is a lot of talk these days about the problems of millennials. I find the whole idea of a “millennial” to be largely a cultural hoodwink, a conversation meant to pull attention away from how Baby Boomers sold our society out to economic interest, and then managed the economy badly. But that’s just me.

Still, on Tuesday I wanted to put the screws to the parents of millennials, suggesting that older GenXers and younger Baby Boomers had lost their parenting marbles. Our disquieting paranoia that our children may in any way struggle has led to what experts call “delayed adolescence,” a “culture of entitlement,” and, poignantly, “learned helplessness”—really the collapse of courage in the face of life’s trials, sometimes resulting in mental illness.

students-answering-teacher-questionHonestly, I am not terribly concerned for the children of this poisonous environment in the long run. I think Millennials and younger GenXers will thrive in this socioeconomic Hunger Games that Baby Boomers have set up for us. Despite all the Baby Boom generation’s efforts to remain the centrifugal force of culture and wealth, GenXers are finding their way, and Millennials have invested new kinds of ingenuity, flexibility, and hopefulness to their multilayered worlds.

There are costs, though, to the culture of learned helplessness that parents are creating for their children.

For one, those with genuine mental illness and learning disabilities are lost in a culture of parenting that demands special attention for every child. In my area, about one in five children are on an “individual plan” in the public elementary school system. Certainly it can’t be true that 20% of our children are geniuses, learning disabled, or in need of psychological support? Evidently, so. At some point, how do we support children in a system that Baby Boomers across North America have decided isn’t worth funding adequately?

great question kidChildren that have barriers to learning will lose out in this Darwinian deathmatch post-2008 culture, but the whole generation suffers when it comes to meaningful work. Young adults—and I am in this camp still—are consistently told, “You don’t have space and time to play around with finding your dream job. You should settle down and do the work that has to be done.” Baby Boomers look down on younger workers as being listless, restless, and skill-less.

Fine. Every generation has done this, and each generation has aspects of its personality to contend with. But we are being told this by a generation of people who largely redefined their own spaces in the work world, demanding space for a dream that work can be a meaningful expression of our faith, our heart’s desire, our ethics, and our vision for the world. Now that space is gone, or at least discouraged.

More deeply disturbing is this narrative from leaders and politicians: “You can no longer expect to have full time, permanent work with benefits and a pension and a chance for advancement–at least for a long time.” Baby Boomers who are in control of business, educational, and governmental leadership are essentially saying, “What was essential for us to have we will not make available to you. You’ll just have to make due.”

maxresdefaultWhen I consider that the wealthiest generation in history, Baby Boomers, have delayed retirement while at the same time on the verge of receiving the largest transfer of wealth in history from the death of the men and women who survived the Depression and WWII, I begin to wonder if the culture of entitlement is not a Millennial problem but a Boomer one.

As children get left behind and the gap between rich and poor grows, we see there are cultural and economic problems with this risk-averse culture of parenting. But I wonder if the biggest problem with “learned helplessness” is the title. See, calling it “learned helplessness” transfers the problem from parent to child, from perpetrator to victim. For a generation of parents lacking subtlety, I think we should really call it “Teached Helplessness.”

Lego Infinite JestA Teached Helplessness approach to parenting will always, in the case of every healthy child, rob him or her of one of life’s most fundamental realities and greatest opportunities: Life is hard. Wealth and technology have brought us the greatest comforts of history, but we can’t seem to get comfortable. We have the opportunity to be the healthiest of any generation, but we are sicker. We have the greatest wealth of any culture, but charity giving is eclipsed by the rate of economic growth. We are the most socially engaged culture ever, and yet so many millions are lonely. We can travel anywhere in a globalized, connected world, and our own world seems to get smaller.

Life is hard. And like the shaping of a mined stone into a brilliant diamond, it is the violence of the tool that reveals the beauty. Our children need to learn the durability that is required to flourish in this hard world. We need to recover our courage. I think it is there in our muscle memory, but it requires the resistance of every day life for it to emerge again as a core ethic of holistic life in a disintegrated world.

beautiful bookshelf design stairThe real problem with Teached Helplessness is that in protecting our kids from harm, we are shielding them from the tragic beauty of real life. For a butterfly’s wings to unfold the first time, it needs to struggle out of its own cocoon. So, too, the trials of life–viewed now as a kind of evil–are an opportunity to develop virtue, to inspire innovation, and to engender space for new kinds of beauty.

That is why I am against Teached Helplessness in all its forms, whether through the patronizing of youth, through helicopter parenting, or through any policy that treats challenges as a kind of evil in and of themselves.


About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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12 Responses to The Real Problem with Teached Helplessness

  1. There seems to be a general loss of self-discipline and a focus on the “Wonderful Glories of Victimhood” associated with this loss of courage. When I was a kid, my mom (a child of the depression) and my dad (a survivor of WWII) kept telling me, “hey, life’s tough, deal with it.” I’m not sure that blaming the Boomers is entirely valid. It seems to me that this mess has its roots in the youth culture of the ’60s and ’70s. That, I think had its roots in Madison Avenue (Big Advertising) discovering that it was easy to con kids out of their parent’s money. There was also a general hedonism of the times… In any case, our values became really messed up in those days.


    • Your comment makes me wonder something: did our necessarily increasing sense of the damage done to victims–say of abuse or ethnic cleansing or systematic racism–contribute to a victim mentality, or is a victim mentality a natural outworking of a culture of entitlement? If you see what I mean, if there is an expectation (entitlement_, and you don’t get what you want, you are a victim.
      It’s not so much that I blame Boomers. Cultural moments happen. But Boomers are the youth culture of the 60s and 70s. Boomers had an opportunity to change the world, and they ultimate bought into Madison avenue. There are bright, loving exceptions on every street–just as there are for each generation–but where does the hedonism begin? It is not a recent invention, but merely a recent perfection.


  2. Joe Hoffman says:

    The best writing about the millennial generation is “Generations” by Strauss and Howe, written in 1991. . The authors basically did a Fourier analysis of US history. Lots of their smaller predictions are wrong, but I see their big ones coming true all around me. Spoiler: 2025 is going to be interesting.


  3. Robert says:

    *globabalized > globalized
    I don’t understand the joke, if joke it is, of using *teached rather than taught.


  4. Cyberkitten says:

    Excellent review of the world. Unfortunately it’s going to take a few really nasty knocks to get us out of this malaise we find ourselves in.


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