Valentine’s Day Tattoos and Learned Helplessness in Children

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learned helplessness in children

At 7 am, pre-coffee, on Tuesday, February 13, I sat bleary-eyed at my dining room table helping my 8-year-old with their classroom valentines. No, I wasn’t writing the names or checking the list.

I was putting a bunch of miniature tattoos into the little teensy tiny-tattoo-holding-slots on the stupid cards.

As I sat there fumbling with them, my uncaffeinated, uncoordinated, self grumbled at the insanity of it all, I tweeted out:

Placing the tiny tattoos onto Valentines requires too much fine motor coordination for my 8 yr old (and me, clearly) and therefore the kid’s Valentines are more work for me than them speaks several layers of volume about parenting and societal beliefs about kids’ accountability

As a parent and teacher, I focus a lot on my child’s and students’ accountability. These tattoos made me irrationally angry because of what they represented, not because of what they really were.

What Is Learned Helplessness?

Psychologists define “learned helplessness” as a mental state that occurs when animals or people are required to endure a painful or unpleasant experience and then later feel they have to suffer that experience when again presented even if they can escape.

As the theory became more accepted in psychological areas, it became an underlying principle in behavioral theory. Psychologists use it to explain why people don’t leave harmful situations even when they have the physical ability.

Why Is Learned Helplessness a Problem for Kids?

Kids fear that if they aren’t the best at sports or school, they will disappoint parents and peers. This fear keeps them from attempting things at which they might fail. As children lose their ability to fail in supported environments, they stop trying new things. They also quit easily and feel afraid of new experiences.

When kids refuse to fail or aren’t allowed to fail, they stagnate. If they do poorly on one thing, they extrapolate that to others. They begin to assume that success or failure has nothing to do with their hard work but something innate. You’re either born smart or stupid. When kids engage in this fatalist thinking, they ignore their own complicity in their success or failure.

Learned helplessness in children represents a growing problem in academics and transitions to adulthood.

Why Is Learned Helplessness a Problem?

Research indicates that learned helplessness leads to depression and anxiety. As kids learn to fear failure and avoid new situations, anything new leads to feelings of anxiety. Feeling helpless leads to feeling they cannot make decisions that change their position. Feeling trapped in situations then leads to depression.

When kids continuously fear failure because we enable them, they won’t take risks, which leads to anxiety and depression.

What Are Parents Doing to Enable Learned Helplessness in Our Kids?

The modern world judges parents as much as children. Parents look at one another and internalize other children’s actions and abilities. The constant pressure to be the best, do the best, have the best has led to parents becoming more engaged in their children’s lives.

We are conditioned, as parents, to want the best for our children. The pressures of society and the economy force us to look at our kids now to see how they will be able to live in the future. We know that grades get kids into college, which leads to higher earning potential and economic stability. We want our kids to grow up to live a more comfortable life than we lived.

We start when they’re little. We try saving for college and realize that we won’t be able to afford it for them. We want them to excel so that they can earn a scholarship. Maybe we get them into sports, or we get them tutors. We want the best for them. We want them to recognize the importance of doing well.

When we see them struggling, we want to help them. We see memes on the internet about letting kids remain innocent or having time to play. Perhaps we help them with their homework a little bit. They ask us a math question, and we idly respond. We see them playing with their friends, and we pick up their backpacks so they can have a few extra minutes of being little kids.

We want them to engage in class activities like Valentine’s Day. We buy them the little cards. Maybe a kid has dysgraphia, we help them write their name. Maybe a kid has a hard time using scissors, so we help them cut the little cards apart.

Sometimes, it’s easier for us to do something just to save time at breakfast.

Then I spent a half hour trying to shove mini-tattoos into stupid paper cards that everyone knows the kids are throwing out the second they get home.

In this moment, uncaffeinated though I was, my brain fumbled into the bigger problem.

How Society Is Enabling Learned Helplessness in Kids

Look, I’m the #worldsokayestmom. I’m the one who pushes her kid to do things on their own. I’m lazy as can be and admit that I don’t want to carry my kid’s backpack because I am too tired from working three jobs and having MS to do One. More. Thing.

Then I looked at those little tattoos, and my brain exploded.

Half the target demographic doesn’t have the fine motor coordination to put these little pieces of paper in the cards. For crying out loud, I didn’t have the fine motor coordination to do, and I’m a 40-year-old woman who knits as a hobby.

Goodness knows, I would have skipped them entirely except the stupid cards said, “A tattoo for you.” The kids would know something was missing.

This right here is the other part of the problem. Take out the “helicopter” parent argument, and ignore the kid whose parent calls the principal when their kid is in trouble.

These are Valentine’s Day cards that the kids can’t do on their own. I’m the mom, sitting there, forced to put stupid little tattoos into stupid little cardboard pockets because this was the option on the shelf.

Next time, I know I’m going to forget to look at whether the cards come with tattoos because I’m rushing and grabbing the first thing on the shelf.

Parents are partially at fault for the learned helplessness in our kids. We need to fight with our kids about their homework. We need to consequence them and accountability them and finger point at them, channeling our grandmother’s crooked finger as we remind them not to disrespect their teachers/themselves/us by being lazy.

We can hold ourselves accountable to keep our kids accountable to change the environment of learned helplessness. We can teach our kids to have a growth mindset or a maker mindset, so they learn from failure.

Unfortunately, somewhere in the seedy underbelly of society, something undermines us. Whether it’s consumerism or greed, hatred or fear, something in society, something we can’t always articulate, is making it difficult even for those of us fighting the good fight.

What Can’t We Stop?

Those stupid little mini-tattoos in Valentine’s Day cards.