Bravo to writer Lori Gottlieb for her outstanding article in the July/August 2011 issue ofThe Atlantic,titled,“How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the Obsession with Our Kids’ Happiness May Be Dooming Them to Unhappy Adulthoods.”
This is an issue I wrote about extensively in my book,Letters From Home, and it alarms me every day as I see the next generation—our future leaders—being raised with overinflated egos from the über-praise they perpetually receive, believing that they should always have options that will make them happy. Feelings of hurt and sadness, ranging from mild disappointment to painful devastation, are a part of life, and shielding kids from experiencing those feelings creates an unrealistic image of the world and their place in it.
Here are some highlights from the article that hit the nail right on the head:
UCLA psychiatrist Paul Bohn believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it, with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.
According to child psychologist and author Dan Kindlon, if kids can’t experience painful feelings, they won’t develop “psychological immunity. It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” he explained. “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.”
Los Angeles family psychologist Jeff Blume believes that many of us today don’t really want our kids to leave, because we rely on them in various ways to fill the emotional holes in our own lives. “We’re confusing our own needs with our kids’ needs and calling it good parenting,” Blume said.
Author and psychology professor Jean Twenge says: When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning when he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special…But, she says, what starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself—a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are. This gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.
Psychologist and parenting expert Wendy Mogel begs, “Please let them be devastated at age 6 and not have their first devastation be in college! Please, please, please let them be devastated many times on the soccer field!” She also says that parents who protect their kids from accurate feedback teach them that they deserve special treatment.
The message we send kids with all the choices we give them is that they are entitled to a perfect life—that, as Dan Kindlon, the psychologist from Harvard, puts it, “if they ever feel a twinge of non-euphoria, there should be another option.”
At the risk of sounding callous and insensitive, we adopted the “Suck it up, dude,” philosophy when our boys were little. Of course we’re right by their sides if a situation is physically dangerous or their rights have been compromised, but we treat garden variety disappointment or failure by giving the guys an ear to listen briefly to their ranting or wallowing, a hug, and an honest, “Suck it up, dude.” We help them assess their strengths, encourage them to believe in their abilities, and then it’s up tothemto map out a solution and muster the self-confidence to move forward.
We’ve never been proponents of participation trophies, given to everybody so no one’s feelings get hurt. The year our twins’ team won the local AA division Little League championship? You bet they deserved their trophies. Other years? Fun season, valiant effort, superb sportsmanship, but the team didn’t deserve trophies simply for showing up. By giving one to everybody, an award becomes diluted and less special for the winners, and everyone becomes conditioned to expect rewards without success. And you sure don’t get rewarded and recognized just for showing up anywhere else in life!
Admittedly, one of the most heartbreaking parts of parenting is witnessing your child experiencing hurt, disappointment or failure. It takes monumental strength to resist the urge to swoop in and “rescue” your sad son or daughter, reflexively trying to fix things so they feel happier. But better to equip them with strategies and solutions that will help them deal effectively with those feelings largely on their own. To foster self-reliance and support their efforts to fix things or get the train back on track themselves. Tough as it may be for you as the parent, giving your child the opportunity to cultivate a realistic sense of self, build personal strength and conviction, and develop resilience is an invaluable gift that will pay profound lifelong dividends.

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