School of hard knocks

Young people need to be taught resilience, not how to revel in trauma and fragility

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

When I was a kid, calling someone a “softy” was our go-to insult. Spending weeks trying to keep ourselves amused on summer holidays in rural Ireland involved sliding down hillsides on galvanised sheets into fields with bulls or daring each other to grab electric fences.

As one of six Beano-loving cousins, Walter the Softy (with all his exceedingly un-pc wimpy, effeminate traits) was the opposite of what any of us wanted to be. We loved Dennis, Beryl the Peril or Desperate Dan from the Dandy — heroes of chaos, pillars of strength.

My memories are all happy ones, even when the peer pressure to be strong felt overwhelming. Today, a happiness instructor or wellbeing expert would see our wild escapades as traumatising. Perhaps our parents’ decision to kick us out in the morning, whatever the weather, would be declared neglect? Dennis’s bullying behaviour is too toxic and influential to be shown to children, even if it is all meant to be tongue in cheek.

Fragility brings fame

Resilience is no longer an acceptable goal to aim for — for kids and adults alike. We used to talk about the stigma of being “soft” and how difficult it was to talk about mental health, but these days fragility, weakness and vulnerability are all but lionised. Just take the latest sports spat over tennis champion Naomi Osaka, who pulled out of the French Open this year citing concerns about her mental health.

Osaka is to be commended (and shown sympathy) for calling time when she’s had enough — there is no shame in knowing your limits. But John McEnroe and Piers Morgan were labelled monstrous for criticising Osaka’s unwillingness to deal with her sport’s lows in order to enjoy its highs. And while both men could have been a little kinder in their approach to an individual who seemed to be genuinely struggling, it was the celebration of Osaka’s fragility that was more alarming than a couple of old boys telling her to pull her socks up. “I am naturally introverted and do not court the spotlight,” Osaka wrote in a follow-up article for Time magazine, adding, “it has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does.”

The celebration of Naomi Osaka’s fragility was more alarming than her being told to pull her socks up

The current trend, to put everything from stress, anxiety and pressure to paranoia and depression all under the same label of “mental health” has convinced us that the “normal” negative emotions we have aren’t normal at all. Therapy is now something people engage in as casually as going to an exercise class.

The end goal is no longer to be “well”, but to admit that you are in fact in a constant state of being “unwell”. Defeating the stigma around mental health that prevented many people with problems being able to seek help is a welcome development. But if we’re all convinced that we’re “going through something”, are we in danger of fetishising unhappiness?

Women for weakness

One of the most pronounced ways in which this trend towards venerating vulnerability has taken hold is in relation to women — particularly young women. The theorising around “harm” that grew out of the 1980s anti-porn movements and morphed into modern No More Page Three campaigns asserts that women’s mental health is compromised by existing in a society with sexist imagery. Perhaps sick of the bra-burning, Dr Marten-wearing caricatures, feminists began to flip the script on their response to sexism.

No longer were women expected to fight for their freedom. Instead, women were encouraged to internalise the problems they confronted in society

No longer were women expected to fight for their freedom. Instead, women were encouraged to internalise the problems they confronted in society. Today, material issues such as pay, opportunities, childcare or abortion rights often come second to discussions about how women feel, how they see themselves or how healthy their sense of self is.

The discussion about body image during the “Beach Body Ready” scandal of 2015 was a real eye-opener to how far feminist belief in women’s resilience had sunk. A diet-powder advert on the London Underground was removed after activists (backed by politicians, celebrities and thousands of signatures on a petition) described it as “targeting individuals, aiming to make them feel physically inferior”.

Failing to recognise that the entire point of a diet advert was to make one feel inferior, and therefore willing to sacrifice meals in favour of stomach-turning protein shakes, feminists argued that the advert was harmful to women. At a protest in Hyde Park which I attended, young women were holding seemingly defiant signs that read “fuck your body image”.

But this was no signal of strength — Sadiq Khan’s decision to pressurise Transport for London to remove the posters was the kind of fairytale, patronising chivalry that should make women queasy. Rather than give two fingers to idealised images of beauty or think about more important things than how we look in swimwear, these women wanted to assert their weakness in the face of a billboard poster.

The kids are alright

While I might remember a childhood of lessons in how to grow a thick skin, concerns about children’s mental health and fragility are nothing new. The hysterical debate about smacking shows a society less concerned with stopping abusive behaviour, and more obsessed with framing every interaction between child and parent as a potential topic of conversation with a future therapist.

Mild smacking from a loving parent is now characterised as assault. Emotional neglect is now just as heinous, with parents who raise their voice or even use the word “no” too often told they’re causing lasting damage to their child’s mental health. In schools, red pens are banned for fear of the effects of criticism, mindfulness sessions are written into the school day to teach bored kids how to doze off for half an hour without anyone noticing.

Any sensible person who has worked with young children would tell you that plenty of kids go through hardship and need pastoral care as well as educational rigour. But, as I learnt from my years working in a school office looking after detention, some of the naughtiest students were best at deploying words like “anxiety” and “stress” to explain away their bad behaviour.

A good teacher understands that one of the worst things you can give a child is a complex

A good teacher understands that one of the worst things you can give a child is a complex — tell them there’s something wrong with them (such as weaponising natural exam stress as a mental-health issue) and they’ll run with it.

Even when children face real challenges, such as 15 months of being locked down without social contact, we should be wary of panicking about mental health. Anti-lockdowners, understandably angry about the unnecessary removal of children from school for months on end, have taken to talking about the damage lockdown has done to children in increasingly shrill and therapeutic ways.

There will be some kids — those with autism, for example, or those who struggle with academic work or don’t have brothers or sisters for company — who might take a long time to recover from the experience of lockdown. But many other parents know that their kids are like rubber balls, and while the challenge of settling back into the routine of school life is still being constantly disrupted by bubbles and enforced self-isolation, they’ll probably bounce back in the long run.

One of the most corrosive aspects of the pandemic has been the failure to get a hold of our feelings of fear. Passing this continued sense of terror onto children by way of arguing that their mental health has been tarnished irrevocably by lockdown will do nothing to help them get back to the “normal” we all need.

Resilience is not a dirty word

Mental health is a serious issue, and should be understood by a tolerant society as part of human life. Several of my grandparents suffered from what Irish people of a certain generation called “bad nerves” that today we’d recognise as bouts of depression that shouldn’t have been a source of shame.

You’ll never fully appreciate the beauty in the world if you’re not brave enough to deal with its ugly side

Yet, in righting the wrongs of past stigma, we’ve given up positive lessons from past generations — about overcoming tough times, getting through hardship and that negative emotions are all a part of life. You’ll never fully appreciate the beauty in the world if you’re not brave enough to deal with its ugly side. What makes us human is in part our ability to adapt and overcome.

No one says “the world is your oyster” any more — the low expectations we’re instilling in a generation obsessed with pandering to their feelings of vulnerability is a serious disservice to their potential.

Perhaps the kicking we’ve all taken over the last year should make us reflect on how important resilience really is — not just for herd immunity or viruses or economies, but for our own sense of self and the way in which we interact with the world.

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