How could it be that well-meaning attempts to shield children from feeling bad could actually result in more depression rather than less?
The most obvious pitfall lies in dishonesty. It should go without saying that encouragement is a good thing. Praise, when merited, can be a wonderful tool for reinforcing positive action. But children see through empty praise, however well-meaning it is, and on the basis of such deceit can begin to mistrust even deserved praise.
Another pitfall lies in the belief that children must be protected from failure and the resulting bad feelings—both of which are necessary steps in the learning process. “In order for your child to experience mastery,” Seligman insists, “it is necessary for him to fail, to feel bad, and to try again repeatedly until success occurs. None of these steps can be circumvented. Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good.”
He then points to a 1990 California report titled “Toward a State of Esteem,” which claims that poor self-esteem is the cause of such ills as academic failure, drug use, teenage pregnancy and dependence on welfare. Having made this assessment, however, the report could only be vague when recommending solutions. Why? Seligman suggests that they had no choice, because “there is no effective technology for teaching feeling good which does not first teach doing well. Feelings of self-esteem in particular, and happiness in general, develop as side effects—of mastering challenges, working successfully, overcoming frustration and boredom and winning. The feeling of self-esteem is a byproduct of doing well.”
Seligman’s conclusion is that similar approaches to that of the 1990 California report will always have the cart before the horse: “If we, as parents and teachers, promote the doing-well side of self-esteem, the feeling-good side, which cannot be taught directly, will follow. What California (and every state) needs is not children who are encouraged to feel good, but children who are taught the skills of doing well—how to study, how to avoid pregnancy, drugs, and gangs, and how to get off welfare.”
These skills, of course, spring from others that are foundational to doing well, and they are most effectively taught by a child’s earliest role models: his or her own engaged parents.