Shake it off. Toughen up. Pain is weakness leaving the body. At times as a culture we seem to almost fetishize suffering . In education, that belief in the redemptive power of suffering has found its way into the Cult of Grit. At its best, the field of grittology is a recognition of the need to help children learn to rebound, adapt, recover, weather the storm. At its worst, the field of grittology is an excuse to make no attempt to make life better for children. Instead of taking them an umbrella, standing with them in the storm, or bringing them inside, we sit warm and comfy on the couch and say, "Well, it's good for them. Shows what they're made of. Builds character. Pass the remote."
A recent Washington Post has a moving and honest take on the issue of childhood suffering from Virgie Townsend, a senior editor at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Townsend opens with a memory of a teen in a writing workshop who wrote about her own abuse and rebuffed expressions of "Sorry you had to live that" with "Don't be. It made me who I am."
I also grew up with violence, terrified of a parent who was verbally and physically abusive, and drove drunk with me and my siblings in the backseat. Sometimes this parent would threaten to choke me with a dog collar or would fire off shotgun rounds overhead for the fun of seeing the rest of the family cower. I am glad my classmate found a way to cope with her past, but I can’t be grateful for mine.
I would have been better off without that dog collar, without those years of fear. After such episodes, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t concentrate on my homework. I repeatedly failed state math exams. My immune system was weak. As a child, I had frequent, unexplained fevers, which baffled my pediatrician and led him to test me for cancer.
Townsend goes on to catalog the other effects-- difficulty making friends, constant worry that saying or doing the wrong thing might trigger anger and disgust in any other person.
My first thought is simply how awful that must be. I have had students who were victims of abuse that I knew about, but reading this account reminds me that some abuse victims in my classroom present with other problems that do not obviously scream "abuse victim." About my fifth or sixth thought is that there are folks out there who think that part of the solution to Student Townsend's problems is to fire the math teacher who couldn't get the test scores up.
It’s human nature to believe that our difficulties carry extra meaning, that they are not in vain. Although suffering is undesirable, it’s supposed to help us grow. We want our pain to make sense, to somehow be edifying. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Townsend goes on to catalog, from the Puritans through Teddy Roosevelt through Helen Keller through Oprah, how we love the story of redeeming and clarifying suffering. I would add that it's worth noticing that one of the first things people do in these stories of growth and strength is they stop suffering. It's not like cake. Nobody (well, almost nobody) says, "Wow. That was so good, I think I'll have some more." Suffering in these stories is so good for the hero, and yet the progression, the path, is to move away from it as swiftly as possible. So I'm going to call our attitude confused, at best.
Townsend notes that we all benefit from "life's healthy and normal challenges." But researchers have found that "traumatic incidents often have long-term negative consequences." Childhood abuse or trauma can result in toxic stress-- stress that is literally poison to the body. "In work published in 2012, Harvard researchers found
that people who had been mistreated as children had, on average, a 6
percent loss in volume in their hippocampi, a part of the brain involved
with learning and memory. Toxic stress also damages the prefrontal
cortex, which is linked to social behavior and decision-making, and the
cardiovascular and immune systems."
Research suggests that childhood trauma increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, mental health issues and (surprise) poor school performance. "A 2009 study
in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that people who
had six or more adverse childhood experiences died, on average, 20
years sooner than those who had none."
The classic story of redemption and strength has also been found to be helpful to children, but only when paired with the support of stable adults. Simply invoking grit or Kelly Clarkson is not enough.
The message is clear. Childhood trauma stacks the deck against the children who suffer through it. Invoking grit or repeatedly firing the teachers who can't work miracles won't help. Repeatedly churning school staff so that school itself is a crazy chaotic place won't help. In fact, shuffling those children off to school while saying, "Well, the schools should fix that" is not enough.
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," is pretty close to "What are you complaining about? You're not dead, yet." It is absolutely true that life comes with difficulty and challenge and hurt and hardship and that people whose goal is to encase their child in a problem-free cocoon are making their own sort of terrible mistake (that's a column for another day). But that's kind of the point-- life comes with plenty of difficulty all on its own. We don't need to be callous about that, and we certainly don't need to add to it, and we certainly shouldn't abandon our smallest, weakest brothers and sisters to suffering on their own because we figure that will be good for them.