Mindfulness Books for Kids: A Publishing Confidence Trick?

Could mindfulness books aimed at children harm them?

Out of the minds of babes

I’m sitting in a pub in Camden watching rain slap into the lock and listening to the two women behind me talk about their experiences with therapy. One’s anecdote ends. They laugh. It has that familiar vague desperation to it. 

In mid-November, an article from The Guardian popped up in my news: Mindfulness books for children are a runaway publishing trend.

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword. Like self-help, it operates in a nebulous zone. As public mental health discourse becomes more prevalent, and the increasing strain on the public’s collective mental health becomes more apparent, people have started to take emotions more seriously. This is true even in the UK, a nation that by all reason should have stopped existing several hundred years ago, due to the British incapability of carrying out anything more affectionate than a brief dry smile without requisite preparation time, a weekend seminar, and a 50-page instruction manual. Which is to say that emotional expression is, still, not our forte.

The sudden interest in psychological health runs in tandem with the ramping up of productivity culture and ‘workism’, which has its roots in America, but given the cultural influence America projects, the mixture of personal identity with hustle mentality is now thoroughly embedded across the globe. It’s no surprise, then, that mindfulness’ western conception also has its roots in Silicon Valley. These two economic influences in the adoption of mindfulness as a lifestyle management technique are where it is advisable to adopt a sceptical stance. Sure, we suddenly had tech bros attending guided meditation seminars and trying to ‘unlock the power of the subconscious mind’, but let’s dial the wide-eyed idealism back a tad. When worker health is a priority for invested parties, there is always a financial incentive. No exceptions.

In this case, the incentive is twofold: First, as companies began to ask increasing amounts from their staff and overtime went from being an exception to a rule, naturally the stress amongst populations increased. The more corporate colonisation was pushed by companies, the worse it was for employee health with damage to psychological boundaries and identity conflicts that impacted employee personal lives. The second is simply that as people looked for answers to the growing social problem, a new market was born. That market is expected to hit a value of USD $14 billion by 2025. The issues with the exploitative tactics that the self-help industry needs to employ in order to perpetuate itself have been thoroughly explained by numerous people who have researched the topic better than myself, so I won’t spend too long explaining all of the problems with it. Suffice it to say that if the industry is broadly targeted at adults who can better handle adversity and employ critical thinking when subjected to questionable practice, and we’ve already identified that is a relatively toxic environment, then there is a very simple question to ask: Could mindfulness books be harmful for your kids?

What is the purpose of mindfulness? 

The general idea just seems to be self-awareness. A meditative practice to intensify your capacity to notice or understand whatever you’re experiencing at a given moment. So the focus on mindulness meditation chimes with the Buddhist aim of ‘detachment’ just fine. That being distinct from a psychopathic disconnect from the concept of empathy, in favour of a focus on a relinquishment of attachments to material things from whence negative impulses grow. This also seems to track with the mind-body connection schtick. That’s probably a bad summary of it, but if you’ve come here for lessons in Buddhist spirituality, you’re in the wrong place.   

Does mindfulness work?

According to a research paper in the Journal of Management, the evidence suggests that mindfulness can have a positive impact across a series of areas including behavioural and cognitive functioning. They note that while mindfulness emerged in the 1970s out of Buddhist teachings, the current iterations in ‘management literature’ are distinct from the foundational material. 

It strikes me as ironic that a teaching that effectively rejects the consumerism of the modern world would be the thing that corporations would latch onto in order to produce more productive workers. Then again neither am I surprised – the economy functions purely by subsuming, integrating, and reproducing all opposition to it as a new product that can be sold to a target market – in this case the same people who seek to undermine it by visible opposition, thereby defanging the potency of attacks against consumer capitalism. 

The same seems to be true of mindfulness – how many new fads, off-branches, and self-help books, seminars, and conferences have been produced in the last decade in the name of commodifying a practice rooted in practical anti-consumerism? 

How is mental health in modern children? 

Allegedly, one in six children between the age of 6 and 16 presents symptoms of mental health conditions in England, in 2021, a noticeable increase from the one in nine in 2017. A quarter of girls in their late teens also present mental health symptoms.

Does this reflect a recent spike or has it always been this way? 

The article focuses mainly on relatively recent impacts for children – quoting Kate Manning, Marketing and Publicity Director of Magic Cat, “It’s very much a conscious decision in response to various recent reports on how Covid, climate change and now the cost of living have affected children directly and one that has developed over time to become the core of our publishing.” She goes on to reference a pandemic-related Ofsted report, so on the skin of it, this may just be a shrewd product launch based on the various issues thrown up by a couple of especially hard years.

Psychology commodified

Does this just reflect the commodification of psychology, using children as the next leverage point to create a market where none was previously? It’s possible. We’ve seen pharmaceutical companies lean on American doctors, providing payments in return for prescriptions made for their name brand drugs over the generic equivalents. This is so open there are LinkedIn strategy posts about it. Unsurprisingly, it works. A study in BMJ Open concludes “Physician–pharmaceutical industry and its sales representative’s interactions and acceptance of gifts from the company’s PSRs have been found to affect physicians’ prescribing behaviour and are likely to contribute to irrational prescribing of the company’s drug.”

This is part of where the ‘big pharma’ conspiracy comes from, alongside a series of other miscellaneous gun jumping, not least of which was an accusation that vaccines given to people contained mercury, specifically thimerosal, a generic drug used as a vaccine preservative, now discontinued by many countries, that sold under the brand name ‘Merthiolate‘ by Eli Lilly. This drug was supposedly caused autismproven false by numerous research groups since around the beginning of the 21st century. Predictably, people refused to do the basic reading to distinguish between ‘methylmercury’ (poisonous, liquid at room temperature) and ‘ethylmercury‘ (a positively charged ion, or ‘cation’, nonpoisonous) and instead decided that the discontinuation was evidence that they were correct. It should be noted that the official reasons for removing thimerosal was unhelpful at best: “The Committee stated that the effort to remove thimerosal from vaccines was a prudent measure in support of the public health goal to reduce mercury exposure of infants and children as much as possible.” Anyway…

“with children themselves calling for more titles to help them make sense of their emotions.” 

This is part of where my scepticism starts to come in. I don’t think that 2-year-old kids are sitting there ‘calling for’ books to help them ‘make sense of their emotions’. Why? Because that’s not how 2-year-olds think. If they were entertained by the book, they probably want more of it. But if you stuck a tub of ice cream in front of them and let them go to town, then they’d ‘call for’ more of that, too. So the framing here in this Guardian article seems, at least in this respect, to be fairly disingenuous. 

Through the pub window, I watch sour-faced people trudge across the mulched leaves and sad puddles. Screaming kids run back and forth between tables. Their parents make half-arsed attempts to get them to shut up. It doesn’t work. A separate group sits nearby at the table adjacent to their parents. They’re chanting some word I can’t quite catch over and over again in unison.

I have to wonder if hammering at an open wound is a recipe for just making the problem worse. Like exposing it to germs the same way that denying it’s even there is until it becomes a problem you can’t ignore anymore. Trying to drown your issues can create psychological revenants that can and will damage you and everything around you, but I also wonder if that applies to absolutely everything. At the risk of lumping myself in with the big pharma conspiracy crowd, I can’t help wondering whether the medicalisation of every uncomfortable emotion is for everyday people, the doctors, productivity-seeking corporations, or the shareholders of pharmaceutical companies pushing new pills and mood stabilisers and so on. 

The problem with the corporate sales pitch of mindfulness is that it sells itself as a solution to every problem. In the modern world we’re told that acknowledging our pain, ala Freud, Jung, and Reich, et al., Is the way to stop ourselves from submerging it into our unconscious, and by keeping it in the conscious, forcing us to deal with it one way or the other, we function better. Supposedly. That’s true, but only up to a point. Like everything else, taken far enough and it becomes just another sales pitch. A monetised Disney cliche – ‘search inside yourself because the power was in you all along! Unlock your unconscious with this course for a monthly payment!’ Thanks, Snow White, but that kind of twee pandering puts me to sleep. Or for the terminally online, the exhortation to ‘rewire your brain’.

Publishing industry and economics

To give my own industry the benefit of the doubt for a second, publishers all around are casting about for new sources of profit in a very sticky environment. An article featuring several industry big wigs back in October, outlined a series of  similar concerns. All in all, trying to help kids isn’t exactly the worst way to go about making a couple of quid. The Guardian notes that Magic Cat Publishing reported a 40% increase year-on-year since 2021 in relevant books. Good on them, but it’s worth keeping our feet on the ground and acknowledging that that’s going to drive the direction of this publishing far more than this supposed rash of 2-year-olds demanding mental health-related literature. 

Towards the end of the pandemic, my own employer launched a new initiative to create infographics aimed at lay people and members of the public, boiling extremely complex PhD-level research papers down into easy-digest content that everyone can understand. Given the sheer ignorance and conspiracy theories that circulated in 2020, I can only support that. Which is to say, with regards to making money off of contemporary problems, whether children’s health or a lack of public education, that this is not an inherently bad thing – I don’t oppose it. This is, effectively, the basic idea of commerce: to sell a solution to a problem. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I am, however, mindful of the fact that this is a commercial area that is rife with bad actors, pseudoscience, and con artists who have been more than happy to fleece adults for all that they can, turning their own insecurities against them in a frankly predatory manner. Hence we have a hundred thousand books on ‘the secrets of the millionaire mind’ or any number of articles about some arbitrary ‘x-minute rule’ that are just guaranteed to make you rich in six months.

Weaponising children against their own parents is a marketing tactic as old as the hills – and it’s effective. What I’d be leery of is simply that same tactic applied to self-help and mindfulness and so on. That seems like fertile ground for significant, and very lucrative, toxicity. Reasonable counterargument: That’s capitalism. Fair. Still leaves a sour taste in the mouth.  

Teaching kids mindfulness 

There was one article that casts doubt on the benefit of being ultra-aware of your emotions all of the time. That tracks with a good deal of what we think of as psychological defences – the ability to deflect, if not bury, the impact of traumatic experiences until they can be dealt with at a later date. We developed these over millennia in order to survive in harsh environments. Received wisdom seems to almost suggest that these defences are to be shunned. I remain sceptical. While I agree that, eventually if the wound starts to fester, you need to look at it and deal with it. Not every trauma needs to be lived and experienced at full force in real time all the time. Post processing is a valid mechanism. Forcing the issue through mindfulness, exposing yourself to the wet edge of the blade, is not always the most effective means of dealing with them.

That’s trauma theory 101 – the thing about trauma is not necessarily a lack of awareness, but an overdose of awareness coupled with the inability to do anything with that awareness. The result is that you go into recursive spirals, looping back through the same damage over and over again without end. At that point, it might be worth looking into therapy. For a book illustrating that idea, read Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

It’s worth noting, however, that this isn’t the case all the time. Not every breakup or spat with your parents is life altering. Sometimes it might be a safer bet, at least temporarily, to let painful events lie. If the residual emotions remain toxic, deal with them. If they’re just white noise, then what’s the harm in shutting them up? Not every wound is going to fester. Some of them just scar over. That’s not a bad thing.

Future generations

One of the kids runs into a table, falls over. People wince. The kid starts crying. A woman runs over, picks it up, sets it on its feet again. They do the ‘you’re alive’ routine and a minute later the kid is fine. She goes back to running between the tables and laughing too loud.

The received wisdom is that kids bounce. Part of that is probably just the sheer ability to move from moment to moment without understanding the impact that any one set of emotions means in any given context. 

Are we going to raise a generation that turns to the health industry every time they stub a toe? I know ‘man up’ isn’t in vogue at the moment, for good reason, but there is something to be said for being able to shake yourself off and keep moving. I worry that if this new generation are raised with the idea that absolutely everything negative they experience absolutely must be met with some kind of medicalised or therapy-based solution, that we end up with a generation that is absolutely incapable of resolving itself to the fundamental violence of reality. 

The only people that benefit are the people who have a financial incentive to market this idea. Convincing people that they are absolutely not allowed to turn the tap off until they’re able to deal with whatever is bothering them may do more damage than good. The coming generations are entering a world that may become significantly meaner due to circumstances beyond their control. Many of them will know nothing other than things inside of their control. This is one of the reasons that technology is so alluring and why so many of us are now terminally online. Their experience of the world may end up significantly more harmful if they have not developed enough capacity to deal with the chaotic reality of the ground.

Mind how you go

It’s great that you’ve theoretically got fewer emotionally stunted people wandering about trying ‘man mode’ their way through life as if protein powder and lifting weights is going to save them before substance abuse or suicide become viable options. There’s a laughable section of the population who will view this as ‘pussification’ of the youth. Hence now we’ve got a vapid clown parade of ‘alpha male’ influencers telling incels that acting like a puffed-up Scottie dogs is the ideal way to attract women, and that creating an abusive relationship dynamic is something to be actively pursued. Now buy a subscription to this scam course, these supplements, and these NFTs, you low-T beta cuck!

On the other hand, I wonder if there’s any kind of vetting process for this? Or if we just get the inane shitstorm of the self-help market, but for kids. For those not in the know – the self-help industry’s most-helped people are the authors who rack up massive profits peddling inane snake oil to gullible desperate idiots looking for a quick fix to slow problems. From ‘manifesting’ millionaire status to slathering yourself in your own vaginal discharge to attract men, this is about bank account health, not mental health.

Are we actually teaching kids how to live inside their own skulls without subjecting themselves to incoherent screaming 24/7? Or are we pairing a hundred or so years of screaming with the idea that because they’ve inhaled the information in a hundred mindfulness books, that they should sail through life like consumer monks? What percentage of them will this work for? Should we expect the rest to conclude that because the screaming is still there, they must be profoundly broken beyond repair?

When you pair a profit motive with altruism you can create effective solutions to real problems. You can also create an incentive to perpetuate those same problems because doing otherwise is a bad business decision.


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