01/24/2011 10:53 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'Tiger Mom' Says: High Standards Make Great Kids. A Noted Shrink Counters: Kids Need To...Fail.

Everybody's talking --- and writing --- about Amy Chua's book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," an endorsement of tougher-than-tough-love, even-your-kid's-best-is-not-good-enough, Chinese-style parenting. (To buy the book from Amazon, click here. To download the Kindle edition, click here.) So far, the best piece I've read is on HuffPo, by sexologist Susie Bright, who argues that Chua's method produces non-orgasmic, miserable young women. The best book-length alternative? Martin Seligman's study, which suggests that the best way to raise kids who become successful adults is to let As follows:

Dad brings home a Lego set. Ian, 6, and his 9 year-old sister Rachel, set to work building spaceships. She's fast and efficient. He fumbles and fails. Very soon, Ian angrily throws the Lego pieces at his sister. "I'm a dumbo," he says. "I can't do anything right."

Not surprisingly, Dad wants Ian to feel better. He tells Ian that his incomplete rocket is terrific, that he's "the best rocket maker around," that Ian can grow up to do "whatever you set your mind to." And to make Ian feel better, Dad takes the Lego pieces and builds a rocket for his son.


All wrong, says Martin Seligman, the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvania and former President of the American Psychological Association, in "The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience." [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

Seligman's bottom line: Dad means well, but he's hurting his kid.

Why? First, just about everything Dad says is a lie --- and Ian knows it.

Second, by building the rocket for Ian, Dad sends the message that the cure for failure is rescue by another person --- instead of building self-esteem, he's given Ian "a lesson in helplessness."

Finally --- and for Seligman, worst of all --- "not only does Ian gravitate to the most pessimistic causes, but his way of reacting to problems is with passivity, giving up, and a whiny inwardness. Ian's learned pessimism is self-fulfilling."

Grim stuff. Worse, because it's so easy to be that Dad --- to shield your kid from disappointment, to make it all alright. But the thing is, the way we learn is not from success. It's from failure. "Children need to fail," Seligman bluntly says. We've got to fall off the bike before we learn to ride it. Only then does that first solo trip to the end of the block mean anything.

How do we help our kids confront the challenges of life? By being realistic about their failures and appropriate about their successes --- by helping them build the inner strength to reach courageously, fail nobly and try, try again.

That seems straightforward enough. But it isn't, Professor Seligman contends, because we're living in a sick culture that sends so many messages to make us pessimistic that we don't even notice them for what they are.


Seligman's meaning probably isn't yours. For him, pessimism is "dwelling on the most catastrophic cause of any setback" --- and it is, he believes, "the typical way our children look at the world." And in this case, "typical" equals "disastrous." A pessimistic child, Seligman says, "gets depressed more often," underperforms in school, at work and in sports, and is less healthy than an optimistic child. "One third of contemporary 13-year-olds have marked depressive symptoms, and by the time they finish high school almost 14% have had an episode of major depression."

And that's just the beginning of the bad news: "Pessimism in a child can become a lifelong, self-fulfilling template for looking at setbacks and losses."

How did we get here? And can we do anything about it?

First, Seligman looks at the cause of our current pessimism. Once upon a time, he argues, America was all about optimism. On the foundation of a revolutionary belief that all men are created equal, the young country opened its arms to immigrants --- and who's more optimistic than a person who has, at great risk, left his old life behind to build a new one? The young country rewarded that optimism: It built schools, freed the slaves, extended the vote for women.

But starting in the 1950s, Seligman suggests, real optimism was eroded by the fake happiness of television sitcoms and books like "The Power of Positive Thinking." Smart Americans refused this blinkered boosterism. And life proved them right --- assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate more or less confirmed it was folly to believe that all was well in the best of all possible countries.

In the 1970s, a booming business sprang up to make the bad feelings go away. Self-help books and programs promoted "self-esteem" and a worldview build on a comforting idea: "I'm okay, you're okay."

Except that we're not okay, says Seligman. We anticipate one negative event after another. And our typical response to our unhappiness is to find some fast-acting external "cure" --- shopping, sex, thrill-ride media, food --- that wears off fast and leaves us looking for our next quick fix.

The good news? You can, says Professor Seligman, learn optimism --- what, you thought you were somehow immune from pessimism? --- and you can teach optimism to your children. They may not "feel" better, but they will do better. And they'll have a better shot at happiness than kids who confuse self-esteem with real worth.

Although Seligman has been researching learned helplessness and its cure since 1964, "The Optimistic Child" is not a book of theory. Very quickly, it becomes an interactive tool that tells you "the right way to criticize your child." You can give your child a simple, 48-question test to measure his/her optimism. Another 20 questions will help you determine if your child is depressed. And if you need immediate help --- like: finding a therapist who can better see what's up with your child and how, if necessary, he/she can be helped --- Professor Seligman gives you his e-mail address.

In the second half of the book, Seligman shows you how to build optimism in your child by changing the way he/she looks at his/her experience. If his method works, setbacks no longer seem permanent. Blame stops being turned inward. A lost soccer game becomes one defeat in a long season.

This stuff is simple but not easy. Seligman puts how you speak and what you say under a microscope, and he demands scrupulous monitoring and listening. You may well have to change the way you talk to your child --- especially when punishment is called for. There are bedtime conversations you may not have thought to have with your kids.

And there are limits to what can be achieved. "There is one thing that pessimists may do better than optimists --- they may see reality more clearly," Seligman says. Surrounded by war and environmental danger, many parents will welcome that unvarnished admission. And it is good to hear Seligman's acknowledgment that life is full of disappointment, loss and failure --- this is no pie-in-the-sky program that promises the "happiness" others can't deliver.

But what Seligman does offer is something many parents crave for their kids: a way to navigate an authentic life. With real feelings, real victories --- and enough personal strength to deal with the inevitable real defeats. No wonder that his research is being offered to Harvard undergraduates, who have made it the college's most popular course.

Are there flaws in Seligman's approach? No doubt --- and I'm not competent to see them. But I think there's more than enough right here to commend this book to you, and more: to apply its ideas to my own child-rearing. The way I figure it, I'm doing our daughter the ultimate favor here: I'm giving her her a foundation for a successful life --- that is, a real life.

Who wouldn't take a few hours to read a book with that much possibility for good?

[Cross-posted from]