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Why a touch of sadness is not bad for our kids' mental well-being

By Mary Kenny

Published 08/09/2015

Life lessons: Inside Out looks at the lessons we should teach our kids
Life lessons: Inside Out looks at the lessons we should teach our kids

One of the biggest hit movies of this summer was the animated cartoon Inside Out. It attracted rave reviews and mothers of young children talked about it a lot. It isn't just entertainment - it is an exploration of the inside of a little girl's brain, done with great storytelling and inventive visuals.

It also had a hidden message - this is about mental well-being. And, surprisingly, one of the keys to such well-being is the character called Sadness. In the crisis of an 11-year-old's life, Sadness rescues the situation.

The moral of the story is - sometimes it's necessary to be sad. Sometimes you have to experience sadness to understand feelings.

Inside Out is part of a new counter-cultural movement which is looking at the valuable aspects - particularly for children and young people - of failure, of risk, of struggle, and of vulnerability.

This is in contrast to the more familiar cults of happiness, success and the constant awarding of prizes. This is very much the theme of Jessica Lahey's influential book, just out, called The Gift of Failure.

Ms Lahey is a teacher and an experienced parenting expert and she's on a mission to stop parents from protecting their children against the risk of failure.

Stop praising children for nothing, she says. Indeed, she counsels, never praise them for their aptitudes or intelligence - only praise them for their efforts. Stop fixing things for kids -don't do their homework for them, and if they get something wrong, let them learn by their errors. Life is full of "desirable difficulties".

She tells a story about how she resolved, as a mother, to stop "rescuing" her children from their own problems. One day, her young son went off to school, leaving his homework behind - and he'd done it diligently, too.

The forgotten homework sat on the kitchen table and every maternal instinct Jessica possessed told her to pick it up and drop it off at the school. But, with mighty self-control, she resisted. He had to learn to take the responsibility of remembering his own homework. It was tougher for her than for the kid, but it was a useful lesson for both of them.

Lahey, above all, deplores the "self-esteem" movement which emerged in the Seventies, after the publication of Nathaniel Branden's The Psychology of Self-Esteem. Self-esteem, in itself, is worse than useless. It leads to narcissism, and narcissism leads to anxiety. Esteem has to be earned.

A child develops confidence from competence - from learning to master something for herself, not from empty praise. Empty praise and bolstering self-esteem also lead to fear of failure, and that's the worst attitude a young person can have.

You have to fail in order to learn. Parents should stand back and let kids take the consequences of their mistakes.

Jessica Lahey is an American, but much of what she says is echoed in Stella O'Malley's more forensic survey of parenting, Cotton Wool Kids. Ms O'Malley focuses on the way parenting has gone from under-protection - within living memory, kids were just let out of the house to play in streets, fields, or wherever they chose - to neurotic over-protection.

Isn't there a link between anxious kids and over-anxious parenting? Probably. I was an over-anxious mother and thus, transmitted a bad case of anxiety neuroses to my offspring.

Allowing failure, risk, losing (especially in sport) and sadness are also the themes explored by the psychology guru Brene Brown, whose lectures are a huge website hit. She talks about "the courage to be imperfect" and even "the necessity of shame". We shouldn't strive for certainty, she says. "Kids are wired for struggle, not perfection".

Interestingly, she thinks shame is a very positive building block in mental well-being - without a sense of shame, there is no empathy or compassion.

It's fascinating to see the growth in this movement linking mental well-being, and even, ultimately, happiness and genuine achievement with emotions we've been told are negative - sadness, shame, risk, imperfection, failure.

It's a healthy blast against the gushing worship of success and high grades (Jessica Lahey is against all school grades - it's growth that matters, not grades, she says), which make many of us feel so inadequate. "Loser" shouldn't be a term of insult - loser can mean "trier".

And, yet, can such values really gain ground against the success-worship which is so much part of our world today? In small communities of yore, people could be loved and appreciated for being odd or eccentric, or for being kind and good company, or even just for being themselves. But we now live in a global world where the competition for a place in the sun (or in the limelight) is intense.

The story of Inside Out demonstrates this. It's lovely that it explains - and even exalts - sadness.

Belfast Telegraph

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