Friday, June 24, 2011

It's Never A Bad Thing

Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing. But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.  ~Barry Schwartz

In recent days, at least a half-dozen people have sent me the link to an article in the recent issue of The Atlantic entitled "How To Land Your Kid In Therapy" by Lori Gottlieb. I'll admit to having avoided clicking through to it, assuming that she was going to tell me that just about anything and everything we do can put our children on the therapist's couch, and the last thing I need, as a parent or a teacher, is one more voice telling me that I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. We're all flawed, fallible human beings and we will inevitably raise flawed, fallible human beings. At best, if I'm aware of my own defects, I may, if I'm very conscious, be able to help steer a child away from some specific flaw or fallibility, but even that isn't certain. My underlying parenting philosophy is to love them and do the best we can, to ask for help when we get stuck, and to love them. That goes for teaching as well.

All this to say, I tend to avoid the latest book or article on parenting, relying instead on the tried and true like Mister Rogers, Piaget, and my mom, but as the number of folks from various parts of my life who felt I ought to read this article grew, I started getting the idea that I'd better take a look just in case they were trying to tell me something.

Gottlieb, a therapist, began to see young patients in their 20's and early 30's who felt adrift, empty, and vaguely dissatisfied with their lives. There were few specific complaints, yet they were depressed, had trouble with their relationships and careers, generally felt a lack of purpose, and yet reported having good relationships with their parents. In fact, one of the most common sources of anxiety was feeling so awful while really having "nothing to complain about."

Yesterday evening I drove my wife crazy by interrupting her to read aloud from the article. I thought I'd do the same thing to you:
Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child. It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned? What happens to those kids? . . . Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?
Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock . . . Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying.  (T)his actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life . . . If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it . . . (T)he child recovers fine on her own—but parents never learn this, because they’re too busy protecting their kid when she doesn’t need protection.

I love this metaphor:
It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops . . . You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle . . . Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.’

I can't read this next passage without cracking up. The image of those parents being ushered away by bagpipe is just too much:
. . . colleges have had so much trouble getting parents off campus after freshman orientation that school administrators have had to come up with strategies to boot them. At the University of Chicago . . . they’ve now added a second bagpipe processional at the end of opening ceremonies—the first is to lead the students to another event, the second to usher the parents away from their kids. The University of Vermont has hired “parent bouncers,” whose job is to keep hovering parents at bay . . . (M)any schools are appointing an unofficial “dean of parents” just to wrangle the grown-ups. Despite the spate of articles in recent years exploring why so many people in their 20s seem reluctant to grow up, the problem may be less that kids are refusing to separate and individuate than that their parents are resisting doing so.

Boy, am I guilty of this one. Whose happiness am I thinking about?
We want our kids to be happy living the life we envision for them—the banker who’s happy, the surgeon who’s happy . . . We’re not so happy if our kids work at Walmart but show up each day with a smile on their faces . . .

We always start each school year by talking about empty praise like, "Great job!" but not a day goes by when I don't hear it in class a dozen times, so ingrained this style of parenting has become. I'm pretty good about avoiding it in school, but I know I did it as the parent of a preschooler.
When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special . . . (A)ll of this worry about creating low self-esteem might actually perpetuate it. No wonder my patient Lizzie told me she felt “less amazing” than her parents had always said she was. Given how “amazing” her parents made her out to be, how could she possibly live up to that?
(P)arents would prefer to believe that their child has a learning disability that explains any less-than-stellar performance, rather than have their child be perceived as simply average . . . They believe that ‘average’ is bad for self-esteem.
“My parents would feel like failures if they knew I was here (in therapy) . . . At the same time, maybe they’d be glad I’m here, because they just want me to be happy. So I’m not sure if they’d be relieved that I’ve come here to be happier, or disappointed that I’m not already happy.”

I'm glad I read this, Gottlieb is an entertaining writer. Her bottom line seems to be that we don't have to be perfect parents, just "good enough," and that sounds about right.

And maybe they will wind up in therapy. So what? As my friend Rich, a prominent psychiatrist says, "It's never a bad thing." A child in therapy, after all, may simply be a sign that we've raised them to know how and when to ask for help, one of the greatest skills there is. I urge you to click through as well.

Our children are not our masterpieces. ~Wendy Mogel

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LeeanneA said...

I found this article very interesting - as well as your comments regarding the article. It reminded me of what I hear as I arrive at school each morning. There is a Mom & Dad who drop off their son each day - as they say good bye they say to him, "You're Magical, your wonderful we love you!" Then they wave and blow kisses a good 5 to 6 times as they walk through the hall to the parking lot. Very sweet.
Now advance to the school day - his teacher tells him. "NO!" and he bursts into tears and calls out for his parents. He is stunned someone has said No to him. I mean how could this be possible - he's magical and wonderful. :)
This makes me wonder what will happen when he's 30 and his boss doesn't think he's so magical and wonderful?

Mother Teresa said...

I'm found the article really good food for thought. And I like your psychiatrist friend Rich's response. It's great that therapy is an option for have an almost unconditional advocate on our payroll.

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

If you work with young children, I think this type of ta-da parenting has become quite the norm. Sometimes however, before the kids even make it out of PreK, the parents thmselves are feeling stressed by the ta-da relationship. It is a fine line, to be caring and want the best and at the same time, to let the kids make mistakes and feel sadness or anger and then pick themselves up, hopefully learning from this and trying again. It is hard for parents to not want their child to be the best, but it is also harder for the children, who just want to be kids and just want to be a part of a relationship- not the most special part of it.

Aunt Annie said...

Tom, I love it when you post about stuff like this! I find it even more interesting than your kids' activities. And I totally agree with what you say.

Sadly, many 'ta-da' parents (what a great line, Maria- I'm so stealing that!) get their kids to age 5 or 6 and suddenly become bewildered by their inability to control the kids' unsociable behaviour. (Saw an example of this just yesterday.) There is a real danger in making out to your child that they're perfect, and a similar danger in protecting them from disappointment and from learning self-settling skills.

Floor Pie said...

A lot of this sounds like a rehash of Elizabeth Crary's "Dealing With Disappointment." Maybe it rings true to us because we've heard it a dozen times before in Parent Ed.

I'll give her one thumb up for articulating something we already agree with and one emphatic thumb down for equating "therapy" with "parental failure." I said it before and I'll say it again: If my children grow up to have the self-awareness and inner strength to seek support from a therapist, I will be damn proud of them.