I wrote here about the debilitating effects of a set mindset; one that ensures that learners ultimately become paralysed by the need to ‘be clever’ at all costs. People with fixed beliefs in their own abilities can all too easily become stuck in rigid patterns of behaviour as a result of too much emphasis on attainment rather than achievement. An incremental notion of intelligence, on the other hand, allows for – necessitates - making mistakes as starting points for development. Our view of ourselves as worthwhile beings and our health and well-being are in large part dependent on our perception of our place in society. The biological is correlated with the sociological.
If we feel that we can only belong, that we only matter if we act in certain prescribed ways; if we are given generalised praise or blame for being ‘good’ or ‘poor’ (academically, socially) rather than for specific actions; if our being is witnessed as complete and immutable, then we will suffer.
A powerful book about depression notes the debilitating effect on animals of stressful envionments:
Animals can hurt themselves deliberately, and they frequently do if subject to excessive vicissitudes. Rats kept crowded together will chew off their own tails. Rhesus monkeys reared without mothers begin self-injuring actions at about 5 months; this behaviour continues throughout life even when the monkeys are placed in a social group. These monkeys appear to have lower than normal levels of serotonin in crucial areas of the brain.
The author tells the distresing story of a creature with whom, before I read this, I could never have envisaged correlating with any human experience:
I was fascinated to hear of the suicide of an octopus, trained for a circus, which had been accustomed to do tricks for rewards of food. When the circus was disbanded, the octopus was kept in a tank and no one paid any attention to his tricks. He gradually lost colour (octopuses’ states of mind are expressed in their shifting hues) and finally went through his tricks a last time, failed to be rewarded, and used his beak to stab himself so badly that he died.
How many of our children are rewarded, positively or negatively, for their tricks? How many youngsters damage themeselves psychologically or physically because they feel they are only noticed for set attributes (good girl, clever boy, at foundation level, a Level B reader...) rather than for the unique individuals they are?
It is our communal responsibility to ensure that no child subjects her or himself to such acts of self destruction.