It'll be no comfort that, according to the authors, parents don't have long to get it right. By the time a child is six, they argue, experiences have programmed his brain for happiness or depression (though they do go on to suggest that it's possible to tinker with this programming later on). But while it may make some parents feel guilty, Raising an Optimistic Child is not, ultimately, a gloomy book. Its message that the power to lay the foundations for fulfillment rests with parents rather than genes or circumstance will be embraced by many as not only uplifting but life changing.
It's unlikely that the authors wanted to upset anyone. Murray, a clinical psychologist, is jovial and courteous in a professorial way; Fortinberry, a therapist, exudes warmth but also a fragility that betrays her long struggle with depression, won but not forgotten. Though they're blunt about the consequences of poor parenting, they don't criticize parents. "We live in a society in which damage is rampant," says Fortinberry, "in which it's impossible to bring up kids the way we're meant to bring up kids."
Drawing on their own and others' research, the pair argue that the speed of societal change has far outstripped that of our evolution as a species. In hunter-gatherer times, parents raised children close to nature and with the support of their tribe. Children's need for constant and unconditional love is unchanged. But few parents can meet it while juggling work and family in a world of hard edges and twisted values.
The result, say the authors, who split their time between Australia and the U.S., is an epidemic of depression. They accept the more dire estimates about the illness's prevalence - 1 in 4 people in those countries. Such numbers bemuse the skeptics, who suspect medicos who quote them of links to the drug industry. But Murray and Fortinberry generally disparage antidepressants. They do believe that a depressed brain is different - physically - to a healthy one, but not as a result of some spontaneous chemical abnormality. Rather, they back the theory that emotional stress in the early years inhibits proper development of certain areas of the brain - specifically, it causes malfunctions within the amygdala and the hippocampus that make the child less able to cope with stress. Eventually (perhaps in childhood, perhaps not till adulthood) anxiety and hopelessness overwhelm him.
Raising an Optimistic Child guides parents on how to depression-proof their child's brain. It's not enough to avoid stuffing up in obvious ways - they have to do a lot of things right. The child who forms a close relationship with his parents will grow up to form close relationships with others, and that, the authors contend, is the secret to happiness. "It's kind of dead simple," says Murray. "Human beings are relationship-forming animals. That's what we are. All our genetics gear us toward solid, supportive relationships. It is through these that we survive." Just as strong bonds are the path to avoiding depression, so they're the only escape route from its grip. Fortinberry says her depression was cured by her relationship with Murray. Antidepressants can only mask pain, she adds, while cognitive behavioral therapy is inherently flawed because it assumes that healing occurs from the inside out when really it happens from the outside in.
It will trouble some readers that the authors of a book on the damage that can be done by "bad parenting" are not parents themselves. "In a perfect world we would be," says Fortinberry, "but we felt we had to make a choice between having kids and helping others." Of course it's easier to be a good parent in theory than in practice. But the authors' childlessness doesn't invalidate their points. Theirs seems a fine blueprint for a noble aim: to send out into the world more children equipped to find the beauty all around them.