Friday, February 01, 2013

"Our Children Are Not Our Masterpieces"

(It's been over a year since I first published this post, but it's one I feel deserves to see the light of day on a semi-regular basis. If there is a single thing loving parents tend to forget, it is this.)

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 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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The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

Very good read. I've been considering my son's IEP (individualized education plan, put in place because of a receptive language learning difficulty/delay)...part of it states that an assistant can scribe for him, explain questions if he doesn't get what's being asked, etc. I've certainly been guilty of over-hovering/explaining when he has trouble expressing himself. So, I decided to ask his teacher to just let him write the next test on his own. I want to see what he's really capable of, on his own, without any special help. And that will be good enough, even if his work is "average" or even below...if that's what he's able to do, I can live with it and support him as he grows. Love the image of the hovering parents. With four little ones, my husband and I will be more like, "See ya!", leaving them on the college steps with their bags around them. Haha!

Chantel said...

Thanks for re-posting this, Tom, I have not read it before, and I was talking out loud in my apartment (to myself, like a crazy person) while reading. I work in a Child Care Centre in Vancouver Canada, and although I don't have children, this is almost exactly my personal philosophy in my work. I truly hope that when I am one day a parent I can keep this philosophy while raising my own children.


Lies said...

Wow. That's a really interesting read, and a bit of an eye-opener... I have often felt I'm not as great as my parents seem to believe. Strange feeling! But this article really rings a bell with me.
I'm afraid that - while I am not someone who'll say "good job" - I am doing some of the things mentioned in this article (and the same my parents did). Trying to make your child happy and confident may backfire... I'm so happy I read this article. Thank you!!

Carrie said...

My children will definitely know how to be happy as adults. There's no immediate scooping here (only if there's gushing blood).

From the educator stand-point though, we are very much seeing the "college" problem you talked about in preschool. We have a more that normal amount of parents who are having separation anxiety instead of the children. If they are like this at 3-4 what does college hold?