Children today, research shows, are less diligent in their schoolwork, less resilient when facing a setback or a failure, and less able to defer gratification than what is needed to thrive. Fewer personal interactions and more electronic distractions make for a more harried existence. I recognize the trend readily enough in my grandchildren: they watch television, play computer games. When I take them on an outing I must ask their parents to impound that iPod, X-Box, PSP, Game Boy or Nintendo for the duration. But I’m not one to clamor for the good old days.

When I was ten, I was distracted and disruptive at school. No doubt restlessness was exacerbated by the baby brother awaiting my return from school: our mother habitually turned him out in a neighbor’s yard in his carriage, where he was left to himself until I was released from school at noon. “That baby will scream his lungs out,” the neighbor once said to me, and the image of lungs spilling from my baby brother’s mouth terrified me. I ran home as fast as I could, yet it never seemed fast enough. Homework? My parents did not inquire unless I brought home a poor grade. At ten, eager for approval and anxious to draw the teacher’s attention to myself, I often chose inappropriate means to get noticed. Still, I was thankful to be in school at all.

Today it alarms me to see my granddaughter so easily frustrated, so ready to give up on a task that seems difficult. And so I ask myself: Can diligence be acquired? Can resilience be taught?

Martin E. P. Seligman says yes, it can be taught. Not only that, it should be taught, even at school: “We can now teach the skill of well-being—of how to have more positive emotion, more meaning, better relationships, and more accomplishments. Schools at every level should teach these skills,” he writes in Chapter Four of Flourish.

One Flourish exercise I want to suggest to my nine-year-old granddaughter: “Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well.”

It seems a simple exercise, but thinking of and writing down three things every evening for an entire week requires diligence. Diligence requires self-discipline, but self-discipline arises from faith: the faith that you can improve your performance, clarify your thinking, explain your ideas.

I may just try the exercise myself. It has been said that as we age, we tend to become self-protective, cynical, and small-minded. Tonight I’ll find three things to smile about. Three things to be curious about. Three things worth observing closely within my surroundings today.




Above: Third Grade, circa 1950 in Neibsheim, Germany: the good old days weren't that good. I am the third girl on the right.