Sunday, January 4, 2015

What Doesn't Kill You...

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.


  1. These children already have grit. They survive and some thrive even with scary situations at home. The last thing they are worried about in their day is how they will do on a standardized test. I know, I was the child of a severely schizophrenic parent and now work in a large school system. Listen to the teachers. We know what our kids face and what they need. Many times kids don't discuss what's going on at home (i didn't). Teachers feel and can intuit what kids in their class are going through sometimes when no one else can. You can't test a hug. a caring discussion or a referral to the right resource agency. Please, see the child. Not the score.

  2. it reminds me too much of Reagan's "sports will build character" and it reminds me of the sadistic treatment of students in the west point academy or other places where they are supposed to be forming character. If you are interested in the Redemption theme, look at Rick Perlstein's book on Reagan and how he played it to the hilt rewriting as he went along….

  3. "...people whose goal is to encase their child in a problem-free cocoon..."

    When you write that column on that other day, please look into how many of such people there really are. I've never met any. The alleged cases I've heard about tend to be exactly the opposite - it's more the parents trying to encase themselves in a problem-free cocoon. Or parents so worried about their personal and family reputation that they end up making thousand more problems for their kids. True "helicopter parents" as are routinely parodied in the news are exceedingly rare (and of those, very few are poor - most are filthy rich and fall more under the previous sentence). And most of the time kids benefit when parents do their best to intervene and support their child through difficulties.

    1. We'll have to disagree on this one. I have no idea what the national picture looks like, but I've met plenty of helicopter parents who are exactly like the ones parodied in the news. Though I agree that often they are as concerned about themselves as they are about their children.

  4. Yes, that cliche - "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" - is just one more of those bits of wisdom that are uttered with great confidence, but that bear no relationship to reality. On the contrary, empirical evidence suggests that what doesn't kill you frequently leaves you damaged, disabled, unhappy, scarred, etc.

  5. I agree.

    My childhood was dreadful. It was way outside by biological expectations. 12 years in Irish Catholic Boarding Schools during the '60s and 70s. Dysfunctional home life.

    It's taken years to work through the many levels of harm that impacted every part of my being, from the psychological to the physiological.

    People who meet me and hear my story sometimes say that I am very strong, and that what I endured made me so.

    I always point out that I was already strong, and I did not need the abuse to prove it, test it or 'bring it out'.

    I point out that I have had to live with the debilitating effects, including mental breakdowns, adverse behaviour patterns, narcissism, grandiosity, being a bully, difficulty in feeling love or being loved, lack of core belief in self, loss of self empathy. That I have 'survived' is part luck, part effort, part natural robustness.

    I do not grieve for what I have lost anymore, yet I did grieve and deeply when I realised what I had lost.

    I know as an adult that nurture is a primary response-ability to life that is fundamental to healthy human Society, and that 'training' is no more nurture than spraying crops with chemicals and fertiliser.

    Training - "No pain, no gain!"

    The design intent in Compulsory Education is in 'training' a generation for economic purposes rather than nurturing people. This carries within it the philosophy that suffering be seen as something to endure to make oneself stronger.

    The roots of system compulsory education lie in the requirements of the first factory owners to inculcate an obedient, subservient psychology that would accept working conditions, and part of that process was the Sunday School movement tied into the 6 day week - Sunday School was used to teach the 'value' of being a 'worker' as something ordained by God, quoting from the Bible of Methodist Christianity, and therefore 'good'. The good Christian took pride in both the work and his or her place in the Social Order.

    In the 1970s 'child-centred' education gained some traction, following on from the work of people like Carl Rogers and John Holt and others, but by the 1980s, things had changed. Teachers witnessed both the improvement for children and the loss that followed when child centred education took a pasting.

    Keith Joseph spoke to the core of the issue at the time:

    "We are in a period of considerable social change. There may be social unrest, but we can cope with the Toxteths. But if we have a highly educated and idle population we may possibly anticipate more serious social conflict. People must be educated to know their place."

    I see nothing happening within State Education (including from withinTeaching Unions) that rejects this basic philosophy and outlines a more nurturant way to relate to children as people, not least a place in the curriculum that explores the meaning of nurturing relationships based on empathy and kindness as a bio-logical response to any difficult situation, or as a prep for healthy parenting in adulthood.

    1. I love your words "response-ability" and "bio-logical". You write very true words.