Jemima Lewis: Why Libby should shut up and get back to school

She only knows what society has told her - and that, it turns out, is a pack of lies
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I fear for Libby Rees. The 10-year-old Hampshire schoolgirl has been hailed as a prodigy, after writing a self-help book for children on how to cope if your parents get divorced. Help, Hope and Happiness - an illustrated manual of tips and homilies, with titles such as "Let It All Out" and "A Problem Shared Is a Problem Halved" - has made young Libby famous, at least for 15 minutes, across the English-speaking world.

She is currently engaged in a whirlwind publicity tour, jetting about with her mother, Kathryn, from Richard and Judy's sofa to the New York television studios of ABC.

Precociously successful children are always a hit with the media - though rather less so with their peers. Tall poppies are quickly scythed down in the playground. There was a girl at my school who had a novel published when she was 16; as far as I recall, no one ever spoke to her again.

But perhaps Libby will be OK: she is, we are told, emotionally mature beyond her years. Certainly, she is uncannily adept at the lingo of self-improvement. Her parents divorced three years ago and, at her own request she has not seen her father since. However this unhappy situation came about, it must, you would think, be pretty upsetting for her - but Libby prefers to concentrate on the net gains of her situation.

"I think when you have something negative in your life, then you realise how important it is to make the most of things," she chirrups. "I find it a lot easier to have one home and not be going between two places." Her book is similarly upbeat: a mixture of friendly platitudes and New Age therapy that would not look out of place in the pages of Cosmopolitan.

"Take a break," she advises her fellow tots. "Enjoy a favourite film or book. This will give you valuable time off from worrying, also it will help you to relax." Should negative thoughts intrude into your Me-time, she recommends a self-affirming mantra. "Try looking in the mirror first thing in the morning and say out loud to yourself, 'I am better and better each day!' five times. Trust me, I've done it and you really will start to feel more positive about your life."

If that fails, however, you can always rummage through old photo albums looking for pictures of happier times. "Close your eyes for a few seconds and recall all the positive and blissful moments you have previously experienced." Readers of an older generation might wonder where on earth she learnt all this guff. The answer is, everywhere: on television, in children's books, at the cinema and from her friends. The language of self-help is the closest thing the West has to a cultural orthodoxy. It has crept into every corner of society, including the classroom.

There is something terribly melancholy about the idea of Britain's children, weighed down by sorrows and strains, putting their faith in this guff - especially as it's unlikely to do them a jot of good.

Indeed, an increasing number of psychologists and psychiatrists now believe that the cult of self-help is actually destroying our mental acuity, making us less able to cope with life's slings and arrows. In The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need, published this year, the American psychologist Paul Pearsall rails against the unscientific, and often plain wrong, ideas that have wormed their way into our collective psyche.

Consider, for example, these modern shibboleths: never lose hope; love yourself; high self-esteem is essential to mental health; living in denial is unhealthy; don't be judgemental; a positive attitude heals, a negative one can make you sick; guilt and shame are unhealthy; if you pick the right diet and have enough willpower, you will reach your target weight.

Professor Pearsall compiled a list of 20 such commandments and showed them to a group of people who all read self-help books. He asked them to tick those statements which they thought would lead to a happy, healthy life.

The self-helpers ticked, on average, 18 of the 20. Professor Pearsall then showed the same list to a group of researchers working in the fields of psychology, psychiatry and medicine. Not a single one ticked any of the statements. That's because they - unlike the rest of us suckers - had hard facts at their disposal. Research has disproved every one of those statements.

Positive thinking makes not a jot of difference to your chances of surviving cancer, thank God; guilt is a vital tool for learning from your mistakes; and high self-esteem is most common among bullies and murderers.

The subtitle to Professor Pearsall's book suggests a simpler route to happiness: Repress your anger, think negatively, be a good blamer and throttle your inner child.

Poor Libby Rees is not to know any of this. She is just 10. She only knows what society has told her - and that, it turns out, is a pack of lies. If I were her mum, I'd get her off the publicity trail and into a new school, before it's too late. And I'd pop a copy of the good professor's book into her satchel, to help her on her way.