Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Don’t Try to Toughen Students Up, Research Says

How you see the world matters, but expecting the worst doesn’t prepare you for hard times.
By Jer Clifton — April 27, 2022 2 min read
How do I prepare students for the real world?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The world can be a tough place. How do I prepare kids?

Life can be rocky, but teaching kids that the world is usually a bad place doesn’t prepare them for it. Here’s something I wrote recently about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

Like many kids of the early 2000s, I learned my life lessons from “The West Wing.” At one point in the show, Toby and Andrea realized that they divorced because their opposing fundamental beliefs impacted their parenting.

Andrea: I do worry about the kids. Because instead of showing them that the world is for them, you’re going to be telling them that they have to work hard in school so they can bone up for a life of hopelessness and despair.

Toby: Wouldn’t it be ironic if our kids were the only ones who were properly prepared?

Andrea wanted to teach their kids the world is good, embrace it. Toby wanted to teach their kids the world is bad, gear up.

How common are Toby’s and Andrea’s approaches? Which helps kids more?

To find out, my colleagues and I asked parents what basic world beliefs they thought were best for their kids. We call these beliefs primals because they’re so fundamental, with most boiling down to whether or not you see the world as a bad place. As many as half of parents aimed to teach their kids that the world is bad—barren, unfair, dangerous, cutthroat—and getting worse. And almost all of them thought that seeing the world as very good can harm kids.

Then we surveyed 4,500 people in 50 professions to find how these beliefs played out in real life. After all, maybe people who see the world as dangerous can better spot threats and stay healthier. Maybe if you assume everything will fall apart, you never get disappointed.

But those with negative world beliefs were on average worse off on every outcome we measured: less healthy, more depressed, and with much lower life satisfaction, all while disliking their jobs and performing slightly worse at them compared with peers in their profession. And there was surprisingly little upside to moderation—the more positive the views, the better.

What’s more, our research suggests that seeing the world as bad isn’t just the consequence of having an objectively tough life. For example, people who grew up rich aren’t more likely to see the world as good than those who grew up poor. Primals are more like hidden lenses we use to interpret life than mirrors that reflect what we’ve been through.

So, Toby’s “expect the worst” approach is popular, but current data favor Andrea’s “expect the best” parenting.

Don’t assume teaching young people that the world is bad will help them.

Do know that how you see the world matters. Personally, I plan to teach my daughter specific bad things to watch out for but, on balance, the world is good. There’s beauty everywhere—we have only to open our eyes to see it.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being The Monkeypox Outbreak: What School Leaders Need to Know
Officials have declared monkeypox a public health emergency, but school leaders shouldn't panic, experts say.
4 min read
A visitor checks in at a pop-up monkeypox vaccination site at the West Hollywood Library on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in West Hollywood, Calif. The City of West Hollywood is working with public health officials at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in responding to the monkeypox outbreak.
A visitor checks in at a pop-up monkeypox vaccination site in West Hollywood, Calif.
Richard Vogel/AP
Student Well-Being As Students Head Back to School, COVID Protocols Wane
Many districts have dropped one of the most visible and contentious responses to the virus: mandatory universal masking.
8 min read
A partially unzipped backpack contains a face mask, pencils, scissors, and hand sanitizer for the return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being Schools Must Protect Pregnant Students. Proposed Federal Rules Would Spell Out How
The U.S. Department of Education's proposed Title IX rules clarify the rights of pregnant and parenting students and employees.
8 min read
Image of a pregnant professional working on a computer.
Student Well-Being Reports The State of After-School Programs: Results of a National Survey on Programming During a Pandemic
This report examines results from a national survey regarding after-school programs.