I've been meaning to write about learned helplessness from a parenting point of view for a long time but I got distracted with other things. Then I read this article about why poor people often behave in ways that are contrary to their own well-being and I realized that I was reading about learned helplessness.
It is a thing. You should look it up, it's really quite fascinating.
What hadn't occurred to me is that it's a thing on both a macro and a micro level. As an Anthropologist I might be tempted to explore that on a macro level, but I haven't called myself by that title in some years. As a mom and a teacher, I can address it on a micro level. Micro can lead to macro, but we moms have to work with what we have in front of us. We can save the world one child at a time, starting with OUR children. Let us clean our own houses first.
I am going to make the usual disclaimer. I have some experience with learned helplessness as a dog trainer and as a mother and a human being. I took some psychology classes in college and learned a bit about it. But I am not an expert or a scientist. I am a lay person in every way. I am going to write about some stuff based on my experience, my observations and my admittedly shoddy memory of college all those years ago. If you believe that you or your child has learned helplessness in any area, I strongly urge you to get professional help whether it be from a psychologist, or a tutor, or whatever suits your situation best.
What is learned helplessness and where does it come from?
Learned helplessness is the conviction that no matter what you do, you cannot change or improve your situation. No matter how good you are, you'll still be punished. No matter how hard you work, you will get no where. You do things because you feel you have no choice, not because there is anything positive associated with it. There is no joy in it. Therefore, you do the least you can manage to get by or you avoid doing anything at all. It comes from being punished for trying and never being rewarded for doing well and you may be surprised to learn that this is a very common situation.
Translated into a childhood example - Why bother to study, I fail every test. Why bother to behave, my parents will find a reason to punish me anyway. Why bother to practice, I'll still suck.
These attitudes don't just happen. They are taught and learned. I saw this a lot as a dog trainer, especially with rescue dogs. One common example is called the "dirty dog". It is a dog who has been so confined that he was forced to lay in his own waste. Upon being released from the confinement, instead of relieving himself outside and laying in his nice new clean bed, he will instead relieve himself on the new bed and lay in it, because he has learned that there is no way to escape laying in filth and thus embraced it. This is a real problem with puppy mill dogs.
There are many dog training methods that actually encourage learned helplessness. I have read directions on a shock collar that said (I paraphrase) "Give the dog a command and then hold the button until the dog obeys." So… for example, you are telling a dog who has no idea what "sit" means to sit and then administering punishment until it magically figures out what you want it to do. I imagine this works sometimes, but I am picturing a dog who soon gives up on pleasing its owner because it's going to get punished anyway.
But I have another blog for dogs, this is my Pagan family and parenting blog, so I shall return to the point.
Parents do this to kids all the time.
Micromanaging- When a small child is experimenting with the world, instead of allowing the child to explore and work things out verbally, some parents totally micromanage the situation. It is not uncommon to see parents interfering with play with admonishments to be gentle, to sit calmly, to share well before a child has done anything to earn them. A child's entire exploration of a situation may be hampered by his parents worries about getting dirty or breaking things or being rude (even in the absence of these) so that the child may decide it is simply not worth the trouble to explore that thing or in fact anything. Learning ceases.
Excessive punishment- When an older child messes up and is grounded for an excessive amount of time, the incentive to do better largely disappears. When you've taken away all of her privileges you've given out a double whammy. Not only is there no hope for reward (a lifting of restrictions in two months is forever to a child and not a reward, a week is plenty) but you've taken away everything you have to punish her with. Now you have a child who sees absolutely no benefit to improving her behavior and nothing left to lose. Some kids become so used to being punished, that it has absolutely no effect anymore. It's just the way things are.
Demanding perfection- Children screw up. All the time. And even when they do well, it's amateurish. Because they ARE amateurs. They're children. They will clean imperfectly, they will have grammatical, spelling and pronunciation errors and their art projects may be rather impressionistic, whether they were meant to be or not. It is our job to teach them how to do things right and then encourage them to practice, not tear them down because the magic skill fairy didn't show up that day.
When my coven went on a retreat with our children once, one of the girls brought her horn. Her mother rolled her eyes and said "Oh man, I can't believe you brought that. Nobody wants to hear that. It sounds like you're killing cats." and I said, "Oh we don't mind. Practice makes perfect." and the mother horrified me further by saying, "Oh she'll never get better."
Putting the punishment before the crime. Punishment is any unpleasant thing. Threats are punishment. Parents often "warn" their kids of how bad they'll get it if they don't finish all their food or aren't nice to Aunt Minnie or don't have all their chores done by the time we get back. Make no mistake, these are threats. Threats are unpleasant, scary, punishing and they don't inspire cooperation. Your kids should already know that punishment is coming if they don't behave appropriately, you don't have to tell them. And anticipating misbehavior that might not have happened if you hadn't opened your big mouth is just setting your child up for failure. And he knows it. You are telling him you have no faith in him. That sucks. Try to be reasonable: "These are the things I need you to do while I'm gone. I will be gone about an hour and that should be plenty of time. Please have them done when I get back and then we can play a round of Super Mario Bros. together." If they aren't done, your kid knows (assuming you have been firm in the past) that Super Mario won't happen and that other privileges might disappear as well. Don't assume your child is going to screw up. Oh he will. But give him a chance to try before your write him off.
Punishing accidents or sins of ignorance - Have I mention how often kids screw up? Kids are clumsy and don't often know how the world works. They knock things over and break things even when they aren't misbehaving. They break dishes while washing them. They get things dirty. They are careless. Sometimes they do things that are social faux pas in total innocence and you have to take them aside and tell them how inappropriate it is.
Also remember that kids are also not born knowing how to keep their rooms clean, how to wash dishes or how to match their clothes or how to arrange multicolored baubles on the Christmas tree in artful randomness. You may think these things are so simple a monkey could do them, but you'd have to teach the monkey too.
Always demanding more - I think we do this to other adults in our lives more than we do it to our children, but we do it to our kids too. It happens when your employee works her ass off for you and you just make more demands of her time, heaping on more responsibilities with no words of praise, no mention of raise or promotion or increased benefits. It happens when your spouse comes home at the end of a long day, every day, and you nag and nag about how your neighbor has a nicer house and how you work harder than they do. And when your kid shows up proud as a peacock with a report card of all As and Bs and all you have to say is "What's up with those Bs?"
Disrespect, humiliation and disregard of personal rights - Many people, it seems, believe that children do not have any rights. They don't have the right to say no. They don't have the right to an opinion. To a certain degree, as parents, it is our jobs to disregard our children's whims on occasion in order to do what is best for them. But sometimes, it's completely unnecessary and damaging. How is a child supposed to learn to respect herself, to stand up for her own rights, if her parents don't even respect her rights. One extremely common pet peeve I have is the forcing of children to kiss people. Why is this okay? And telling embarrassing stories? Where are your secrets safe, if not at home? What does this teach a child? That his personal space, his comfort zone are of no interest to you. And if not you, his parents, then who?
Learned helplessness. Things will never get better. Why bother.
The Long Term Effects of Learned Helplessness
A child who has been taught helplessness becomes a helpless adult. What does a helpless adult look like? A lot like the chronically poor individual described in the article I referenced above. Now they may or may not actually be poor financially, but there will be similarities.
Smoking, drinking, drugs, eating disorders and other addictions are common among those who believe themselves to be in an inescapable situation - who have learned that they are helpless. Not only do these help with the pain, if only for a little while, but the person who has learned helplessness does not believe that anything will ever get better, so it doesn't matter if they destroy their bodies or waste all their money at the gambling table. They can't make it better, so why not wallow in the worst.
People who feel helpless will often respond strongly to a kind word or touch from someone who can offer them a rescue. This makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and molestation. And once they're in, they're not likely to try to get out again because, why bother?
These folks are also likely not to be the best employees, at least at first. The right employer could turn them around but when you get folks like this at your typical fast food joint, they're going to do the minimum amount of work they can manage and then go home because they'll never move up the chain anyway, so why bother.
They aren't likely to be the best students either because the curiosity has been sucked out of them.
Learning and Teaching Confidence
The best way to prevent learned helplessness and foster confidence is through positive training methods. Yes, I'm talking like a dog trainer again, but hey, it works. This is a very simple concept and even simpler with humans than dogs because humans speak the same language.
Don't just expect your kid to know everything. As parents, our job is to teach our kids to do things, not just expect them to magically know what's right and what's wrong and how to properly load a dishwasher. We must teach them. That means we have to get off of our butts and demonstrate proper technique and then talk them though proper technique and then supervise their attempts, reward their efforts and correct their mistakes until they can do it right.
Punish consciously Only once a child knows what is expected of her is it appropriate to punish her. Punishment is a consequence of wrongdoing. One year old who smacks you the very first time does not deserve a beating. Instead he needs to learn that that behavior is in appropriate, you can punish him if you like after he knows it's wrong, but not when he doesn't. Punishments must be logical, as immediate as possible and it must be absolutely clear what the punishment is for.
Many parents deliver punishment out of anger and frustration. Don't do this. It is okay to say "I am so very angry right now that I am going to need some time to breathe. Go to your room while I think about your punishment." That is okay. Your punishment needs to be logical and suitable to the crime to be effective and you have to stick to it. If you are furious and yell "You're grounded for a month!", when you calm down and realize that you're going to have to play warden for a month, you can't take it back or you'll undermine your authority. If you lose your temper once in awhile you might be able to say "I did lose my temper and I agree that a month is extreme, so I've reduced your sentence to a week, but only if you clean the garage during that week." (Please make sure you have taught your child how to clean a garage. They are not born knowing it, though some seem to have a natural talent.)
Rewards are important. Many parents aren't fans of rewards. My parents didn't believe that children should be rewarded for doing what they were supposed to do, but only for doing extraordinary things. No extraordinary things were forthcoming. I think when people think of rewards, they are thinking big. It doesn't have to be big. My three year old is pleased as punch when I tell him "Thank you". An a little praise goes a long way. Not too much. Jeeze it drives me crazy when people are all "That's awesome! You're amazing!" for every little thing. It takes the shine off. Thank you is great for most cases. So is, "I appreciate all the hard work you put into this" and "I know you worked hard for that B!" and letting kids earn some stuff is great too. "I will buy you an Xbox when you have done all of your homework every night for a whole month." (Remember that it is difficult to set a goal like "All As on your report card" because a semester can seem like an eternity to a kid and the daily work seems far disconnected from the goal. Work out the steps to a goal and work on those daily. Mark them on a calendar to keep track.)
Encourage exploration Kids need to be kids. They need to get dirty and pick apart flowers and spin around in circles till they fall over. Let them. Set reasonable boundaries, of course, for safety and decorum. No spinning in the kitchen, no running in the house, no tasting the dog food but while you're putting all those "no"s out there, make sure you add some "yes"s. The living room is for spinning in, or the grass. Running is allowed on the grass. You can pick the yellow flowers but not the red ones. The dog isn't allowed to eat out of your bowl either, kiddo.
Children must learn that they have control over their situation, or they will grow into adults who do not believe they have control over their situation. This is not what you want for your child. I want my adult children to believe that they deserve to be respected, that their work has value and that deserves to be well paid for. I want them to look for innovative solutions to problems, not to just accept their lot and sigh when something isn't working out. Helpless people do not improve the world around them. They just stand there while other people step on them.
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Comments, questions, criticism?