Lately, doctors and biologists have begun to draw our attention to the tendency of our society to create living environments increasingly sterile. Today there’re many experts who claim that our germophobic trend is really harmful, especially for children, because it doesn’t give them the opportunity to develop their own immune system to protect them from germs. Therefore, according to some of them, in recent decades has increased enormously the number of children suffering from autoimmune diseases.
Now, a study in the field of Psychology is somehow reconsidering this idea. According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, a “tumultuous” education prepares children to face the injustices of life and helps them make better decisions.
A tumultuous childhood may have its advantages
Different studies have shown that children who grow up in poor and broken families show differences in decision making, memory and cognitive performance in general.
Studies about decision making, for example, reveal that people who have grown up in stressful environments, often choose small instant rewards instead of waiting and go for bigger rewards. Undoubtedly, this is an understandable attitude, because their life has been marked by uncertainty. If there was nothing guaranteed in the world for them, it was normal to opt for the certainty of the “here and now”, rather than wait for a reward that maybe they couldn’t reach.
These changes have always been considered deficiencies but now researchers bring on a new theory: it is only a matter of differences, it doesn’t mean these children are unable to reach adulthood. In fact, they can even make better decisions and be more resilient, depending on the demands of the context.
This study involved the executive functions, which are what allow us to process and manage our complex behaviors, including decision-making and the level of attention. The experiment focused on evaluating the inhibition, which can be understood as the ability to stay focused on the task ignoring the distractions of the environment, a skill that has traditionally been associated with the ability to delay gratification.
It was also evaluated the ability to switch from one target to another as quickly as possible, an ability particularly important for people who thrive in unexpected contexts, continually changing.
Upon completion of the experiment, the researchers could see that people grown up in tumultuous or harsh environments far outweighed those grown up in happier surroundings. These people were able to ignore environmental distractions remaining focused on the activity. They also showed the ability to change right away their focus of attention.
Extreme positivism generates an artificial happiness
In recent years, following the spreading of positive messages and the explosion of what might be called the “Psychology of Happiness”, we have created an artificial environment in which we demonize the “negative” emotions and try to empower at all costs the “positive” ones. However, life isn’t like that, life is suffering and laughing, be angry and recover, be homesick and move on.
Therefore, the tendency to over-protect children from the ravages of life, injustice and everyday problems, can actually be counterproductive. Sweetening their world and creating a bubble of false happiness, can generate a distorted image of reality and, what is worse, that they won’t develop the necessary tools to deal with problems. A child who doesn’t make mistakes will not develop a good tolerance to frustration, a child educated to repress “negative” emotions will be an emotionally disabled adult.
Of course, don’t get me wrong (although I’m sure someone will), I don’t mean here we have to follow a style of Spartan education. For those who don’t know I open a small historical parenthesis, in the city of Sparta, in ancient Greece, was established eugenics. At birth, if the child didn’t have a strong constitution, was abandoned on a hill or cliff. If survived and endured the cold, heat and darkness, then was rescued and educated.
This doesn’t mean we have to expose unnecessarily children to situations that hurt them only to temper their character. However, it is important that the obsession with sterility won’t be extended to the psychological level, it is essential not to fall into emotional sterility, in the artificial happiness.
We cannot protect children from everything, because the only way to develop resilience is through adversity. It is about finding a middle ground, so that we allow children to develop their own psychological tools to face life.
Mittal, C. et. Al. (2015) Cognitive adaptations to stressful environments: When childhood adversity enhances adult executive function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 109 (4): 604-621.