Encouraging Health and Happiness

Kids need to experience setbacks to mature

I see parents tie up their egos in their children.

By BETSY HART

Scripps Howard News Service

“Our children are not our masterpieces,” Wendy Mogel is fond of saying. A clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, she is the author of “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee.” And she’s the wise and oft-quoted voice in Lori Gottlieb’s provocative piece, “How to Land Your Kids in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods,” in Atlantic magazine’s July/August issue.

Gottlieb is a therapist and mother herself. She says that while she learned in graduate school that parents can really mess their kids up, she learned something surprising in her practice: that parents who overly focus on their children’s happiness can mess them up, too. Over and over again, she started seeing young adults in her office with idyllic childhoods and involved, attuned parents. What were they there for? Anxiety, depression and general emptiness. It seems their nearly perfect early years, in which they were unlikely to experience frustration, disappointment or certainly outright failure, had not prepared them for real life and its natural ups and downs.

As children, life was one constant “up.”

Oh, and the self-esteem craze? When your parents make you the center of the world and tell you how wonderful you are, that’s nice. When you get into the real world and your spouse, boss, friends etc. aren’t doing the same thing? It seems that can be a problem. In fact, it can be pretty depressing.

For starters, I’m reminded of the talentless, and often humiliated, early contestants on “American Idol” who find out they really can’t sing after all — no matter what their moms told them all those years.

The real question for me is, why are we raising our kids this way? Gottleib only touches on the answer, which I think actually deserves a whole essay of its own: that parents are likely doing all this more for themselves than for their children. Hence Mogel’s “masterpieces” comment.

Historically, there have always been parents who lived through their children, or tried to. One of the reasons we have kids in the first place is because we do want to leave a legacy after we are gone.

But today, I see parents tie up their egos in their children in a way the parents in my neighborhood when I was growing up never did. We do not have the connections we once did to extended family, community or certainly church. We may be too often looking to our children to provide emotional satisfaction we used to get elsewhere. I have to believe high divorce rates are driving this, too, as parents with broken marriages either feel guilty about it and “overdo” for their kids, look to their children to meet more and more of their own emotional needs, or find “success”in their children where their marriages failed.

And having smaller families means we certainly can overdo it. In contrast, I have a dear friend, the sixth of seven children, whose stories of her parents’ absent-minded love for her are hilarious. They got her birth date wrong by weeks, for starters. Seriously. There were so many siblings born so close together it was a little chaotic. The error was only discovered when she needed her birth certificate to get her driver’s license. She’s one of the most well-adjusted people I know.

Contrast that experience to a letter I received from a high schoolteacher. She wrote that every day she saw students who thought they should get good grades simply for “breathing enough air in my classroom over a specified amount of time.” She told me that we’d pumped our kids so full of self-importance that they thought “they are the sun around which all else revolves.”Yikes.

Look, I don’t get it right most or even much of the time. But I once did tell one of my daughters not to consider trying out for “American Idol.” pparently, according to much of the latest research, at least, my kids are going to be OK.

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