“The most common way people give up
their power is by believing they don’t have any”
– Alice Walker
Consider the elephant in the zoo. Every morning, his trainer escorts this huge and powerful beast straight from his cage to an open-air area. A thin chain is clamped to his ankle. The other end is attached to a metal pole in the ground. The elephant is stuck. He walks around and around the pole, but never tries to pull it away. If only he would realize that he is powerful enough to rip the pole out of the ground in a single tug.
But he doesn’t. Because when he was a baby, his handlers attached him to the very same pole and he kept trying to break away. Back then, however, he wasn’t strong enough. After a while, he got frustrated and eventually he learned to surrender himself to his circumstances. Now he assumes that he is helpless and he stops trying to break the chain.
Why am I telling you this simple story? Because it is a parable for how some of our students perceive themselves. Initially, they may hope that they will achieve success in academic or social areas. But after repeated failures and disappointments, they just surrender. We call this sad state of affairs “learned helplessness.”
It’s easy to “misdiagnose” this condition and call it laziness, but that would be a terrible shame. There are “lazy” children, but not as many as we might think. It’s incumbent upon us, as parents and mechanchim, to discern the difference. The child with “learned helplessness” can be treated and motivated to overcome this condition.
The first thing we have to do is to change the child’s thought process. We have to readjust his way of thinking and make him understand that failure is not inevitable. We have to get to the root of the problem.
Children with “learned helplessness” are convinced that they have no control over their lack of success in academic or social matters. They attribute their failure to certain factors that are beyond their ability to change. “I failed my test because I’m dumb.” “I got a C because my teacher hates me.” “I don’t have any friends because everyone thinks I’m stupid.”
Sounds pretty sad, doesn’t it? And yet I have countless children who come to me with these very thoughts. They may not verbalize them directly, but it’s fairly obvious in the way they walk, in the way they talk, and in the way they seem to “give up” on succeeding before we barely have a chance to begin working together.
These kids often transfer their feelings of helplessness to other areas of their lives. According to Richard Lavoie, author of The Motivation Breakthrough, “The child can develop a permanent fixed attitude about the inevitability of failure. His perception of the future is dictated by the past. His feelings of helplessness begin to take on a life of their own. His initial feeling that he is a ‘lousy reader’ expands into the belief that he is a loser in sports, in social activities, and in other areas of his life as well.”
What’s a parent or a teacher to do? We must work to derail these negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. Instead of thinking, “I can’t do this,” the child has to say to himself, “I’ve gotten through difficult situations like this before. I can do it again.”
A master mechanech will tune in to this syndrome immediately. When a bochur starts feeling helpless about his learning abilities, the rebbe will call him up during recess and remind him about the times he understood the Gemara well, and even helped explain it to the other boys in the shiur. The teacher will, likewise, remind her student that last term the essay she wrote on President Bush was so good that it got posted on the bulletin board. And a sensitive mother will explain to her daughter that even if no one called to invite her over for Shabbos afternoon, there were plenty of times when she did spend Shabbos surrounded by friends. It’s happened before; it can happen again.
According to Thomas Tokarz, an educator based in Massachusetts, “You don’t have bad thoughts because you feel bad. Rather, you feel bad because you have bad thoughts. By improving the thoughts, you improve the feelings.” We have to break the negative pattern. The child has to learn that these thoughts are unproductive, untrue, and harmful to his progress. They have to be replaced with positive thoughts of self-worth. In his book, The Optimistic Child, Martin Seligman offers these useful strategies to change to cycle of helplessness.
First, the child has to learn to gather the positive evidence himself. He has to keep a log, so to speak, of the times he succeeded and remind himself of them every so often. Parents can help by discreetly displaying the spelling tests on which he did well, or by having him “overhear” a conversation about how well he did with his music lessons.
Next, the child has to learn to consider the various possibilities that can help make him successful. Like, “If I ask my father to learn with me tonight, then maybe I can get a pretty good mark on the bechina tomorrow.” Or, “If I study the first twenty five states really well, maybe I can at least know half of them by heart.” Or, “If I call three girls on Tuesday to come over on Shabbos, maybe at least one of them will say yes.” This gives the child a feeling of empowerment, as if he’s actually doing something that can improve the situation. It also allows him to understand that he can succeed “partially” at something, and not resign himself to total failure. Then, he has to understand that even if he fails today, it’s not the end of the world. There will always be other opportunities. He can still succeed tomorrow.
Be careful with your words. This is true when speaking to all children, but especially so with those who are trying to climb out of learned helplessness. Avoid telling this child that he is “wrong” or that he made a “bad” decision. These children are very sensitive to the nuances of these negative words. Tell him that his answer has some merit, but together, you can make it better. Also, allow the child to perform tasks and errands that will make him feel more independent and less helpless. Simple things like ordering pizza for the family, being in charge of seating arrangements for a family outing, even baking a simple brownie, can help build a certain amount of self-confidence. And when you build confidence in one area, it often spills over into other areas as well.
Are there any children with learned helplessness in your classroom or in your family? Watch carefully for some of the tell-tale signals. If you think you’ve discovered any, then invest the time and effort to work with that child and unload the oppressive negativity. Or, take him to a professional who can help build his feelings of self-worth. Remember – these kids can be transformed and they can thrive, they just need caring and intuitive adults to help them.