One of my earliest memories is being dropped off for a birthday party at the home of Mame O’Neill one summer afternoon. There were dozens of kids there, running about the lawn. I remember lots of balloons, some cake and ice cream. Mostly I remember the confusion of it all, not quite sure why I was there or what I was supposed to be doing.
Then Mame appeared in the doorway of her house and called us to come inside. We all managed somehow to crowd into her little living room. She sat down at the piano and led us in singing “Jesus Loves Me.”
Every summer Mame would celebrate her birthday in the same way, inviting all the kids of the neighborhood over to her house for a party. But sometimes my sister and I would just stop by on other days for a short visit, eat a cookie or two, and receive an impromptu piano lesson. Listening to this frail old woman sing, assuring us that we were loved, made a powerful impression on me: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong.”
We talk a great deal today about the negative impacts of traumatic experiences on children, and we should never underestimate the lasting harm that incidents of abuse, bullying, taunting and ridicule can do to a child’s self-regard. But I’m not sure we fully appreciate the importance that certain kinds of positive experiences play in building up a child’s confidence. I am thinking here chiefly of the way assurances of love, when they are sincerely and consistently expressed, work to shape a strong sense of identity that is not easily swayed by setbacks and challenges occurring later in life.
Over the past decade or so, those who teach in schools have been working especially hard to make sure classrooms are safe spaces: trigger warnings preface the teaching of potentially disturbing content, books are scrubbed clean of offensive language, microaggressions are systematically identified and eliminated from daily interactions.
All of these efforts are well-intentioned. Anybody who spends much time in schools or universities can attest to ways these institutions are more attentive than ever to being inclusive, supportive and tolerant. Yet, over the past 10 years, anxiety and depression have been rising steadily among teens. What’s going on?
One clue to the paradox is a study showing that liberal teens are much more likely to experience depression than conservative teens. This makes sense, because as Matthew Yglesias pointed out in a recent column discussing this study, “the people who run progressive institutions have cultivated this depressive mindset” as a way to achieve political goals.
I can attest to the fact that among many of my more liberal friends and colleagues, a cheerful demeanor can be taken as a sign that you either don’t realize how bad things are or just don’t care enough about the many problems facing our world.
It seems pretty clear to me that the liberal tendency toward catastrophizing is one source of teen depression, but it is not the only one. The other likely cause is social media use.
As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, reports of depression, anxiety and self-harm among teens has been trending sharply upward since 2011, which is coincident with the availability of smartphones and the widespread adoption of social media apps, particularly Instagram.
The problem with social media use among teens is twofold: It focuses attention on image-based status that is always subject to the whims of an audience; it also replaces time spent in face-to-face interactions, which are more likely to help young people develop an enduring sense of self-worth. When you pair this with an online culture that is highly judgmental and censorious rather than loving and forgiving, you have a recipe for collective depression.
And this brings me back to my story. I don’t know how much those few times spent in the presence of Mame helped shape me as a child, but I do know that growing up in a community in which I was regularly assured that I was loved and cared for — not only by my parents but also by strangers — helped establish within me what the British psychologist John Bowlby termed “a secure base.” This confidence allowed me to venture out and take risks later in life with the assurance that somebody always had my back.
There is so much from the liberal point of view that is problematic about Mame singing “Jesus Loves Me” to children: religious indoctrination, going unsupervised into the home of a stranger, the message that children need a strong male protector. Yet, I do not know how you remove everything problematic from a community without tearing apart the fabric that comprises it.
The nearly exclusive focus of cultural progressives during the past couple of decades has been on eliminating discrete sources of harm, not on creating loving and supportive environments. If anything, the vigor with which many have been rooting out violations of the ever-changing standards of sensitivity has created environments with more anger, suspicion and distrust.
The challenge our society faces today is how to help young people develop a secure identity grounded in genuine love and acceptance. At some level, Mame must have understood that you do that by calling people in, not just by calling them out.
Like so many of the people I encountered in my childhood, Mame wasn’t perfect, but she was good. In her presence, every child was welcome, every child was assured of being loved.