As parents we have all kinds of goals for our kids. The more ambitious among us may want our children to grow up to be President or a superstar athlete. Some may want their kids to make a ton of money. Others may want their offspring simply to be happy. How many of you want to make sure your kid ends up in therapy?
I don’t see many hands raised. And it’s not that counseling isn’t necessarily a useful tool. It’s just that we would prefer that our kids don’t find themselves in situations where getting psychological help is needed or justified.
You can imagine my intrigue when a friend sent me an article entitled: How To Land Your Kid in Therapy, published in last summer’s The Atlantic magazine.
As an educator and a parent I was hooked immediately. The article is long but well worth sitting down for 20 minutes and absorbing, and discussing with your spouse or a similarly minded group of parents. And don’t be put off by the f-bomb dropped in the opening lines. As I mentioned, it goes for the early hook.
Written by renowned author, therapist, and mother, Lori Gottlieb, the article’s central tenet is this: we want to raise our children to be productive, happy adults. It’s what parenting has always been about – what our parents wanted for us, what our grandparents wanted for them, and back into eternity. But how we are going about it may be different. According to psychologists, many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment - “anything less than pleasant,” - with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.
Gottlieb asks us to “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. But this 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. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. 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. In many cases the 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.”
As a parent, this is hard stuff to consider, because every ounce of our being wants to go and scoop up our child and not have him suffer. Those same toddlers grow up and go to college where a growing number of college deans have dubbed them “teacups” because they’re so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way. According to parenting expert Wendy Mogel, who spoke in Colorado recently (see my earlier blog entry), “Well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods so they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up,”
The good news is that most of us are doing a great job of parenting. We don’t have to be perfect, just good enough not to screw up our kids. We should give them confidence, but not over-praise; protect them from real danger, but allow them to fall and to fail; or in the words of Wendy Mogel, “Please let them be devastated at age 6 and not have their first devastation be in college!”
Sounds reasonable enough to me.
(This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Among Friends'.)