When I meet new people and tell them I’m a pediatrician, there are a handful of common responses I get. There’s usually a remark about how much I must love kids. (Most of the time.) Sometimes people ask if it’s hard to take care of sick children. (Yes, but that’s part of the bargain.) And frequently my interlocutor will comment about how the hardest part must be dealing with the parents. (It is.) This last often comes with a self-deprecatory laugh on the part of admittedly neurotic parents who know they drive their kids’ own pediatricians crazy.
If ever I have read any true thing about parenting in America today, it is this article by Lori Gottlieb in the current issue of The Atlantic. (Via Andrew Sullivan.) So much of what she says is so true to my own experience that I scarcely know where to begin. In describing the myriad ways well-intentioned parents coddle and cosset their kids, thus depriving them of a true notion of the world and their place in it, she pinpoints the problems with what I see day in and day out.
… “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, told me. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.” It’s precisely this goal, though, that many modern parents focus on obsessively—only to see it backfire. Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?
Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA who came to speak at my clinic, says the answer may be yes. Based on what he sees in his practice, 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.
Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock, Bohn says. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But, Bohn explains, 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, Bohn says, 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.
“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. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.’”
Nobody wants to see their child in pain or suffering. When my own son is sick or hurt, of course I want his pain or distress to abate. I understand quite well how much parents desire the happiness and health of their kids. But the possibility of any kind of pain or dismay is intolerable for some parents. Fix this now is the underlying demand of many visits and phone calls. It leads to repeat visits for the same cold, for which antibiotics are no more appropriate today than they were yesterday, and which will have to get better with time. It prompts demands for kids to be seen in the dead of night (when the only option is an emergency department) rather than have them wait the few hours until the office reopens in the morning. For some parents, the undeniable fact that some symptoms may persist for some time regardless of what we do is patently unacceptable.
Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who, after the publication of her book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee a decade ago, became an adviser to schools all over the country. When I talked to her this spring, she said that over the past few years, college deans have reported receiving growing numbers of incoming freshmen they’ve dubbed “teacups” because they’re so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way. “Well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods,” Mogel said of these kids, “so they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up.”
Part of my fellowship in adolescent medicine included working at the student health center at one of the local universities. We got a whole lot of these “teacups,” who would become completely unglued by the onset of a cold. Buying some chicken soup at the Cuban place around the corner and taking a couple of Sudafed didn’t occur to them, because they were utterly unequipped to figure out how to take care of themselves. The emotional extremis some of them were plunged into by the mildest and most common of illnesses was something to behold. These were students at a very prestigious school, generally from privileged backgrounds, which for some had clearly come at a price.
Today, Wendy Mogel says, “every child is either learning-disabled, gifted, or both—there’s no curve left, no average.” When she first started doing psychological testing, in the 1980s, she would dread having to tell parents that their child had a learning disability. But now, she says, parents 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.”
Amen. Lake Woebegone has nothing on the local kids, all of whom are well above average. If a child should struggle (or simply fail to excel) at something, it must be due to a diagnosable condition. With appropriate testing and academic accommodation, his or her true giftedness will manifest. That said child may simply be mediocre at said endeavor is a possibility too ludicrous to be considered, much less suggested.
This same teacher—who asked not to be identified, for fear of losing her job—says she sees many parents who think they’re setting limits, when actually, they’re just being wishy-washy. “A kid will say, ‘Can we get ice cream on the way home?’ And the parent will say, ‘No, it’s not our day. Ice-cream day is Friday.’ Then the child will push and negotiate, and the parent, who probably thinks negotiating is ‘honoring her child’s opinion,’ will say, ‘Fine, we’ll get ice cream today, but don’t ask me tomorrow, because the answer is no!’” The teacher laughed. “Every year, parents come to me and say, ‘Why won’t my child listen to me? Why won’t she take no for an answer?’ And I say, ‘Your child won’t take no for an answer, because the answer is never no!’”
Children are self-centered and demanding and manipulative. Given their druthers, they will eat nothing but Froot Loops until their teeth fall out of their bloated little heads. They lack the neurological development to override their immediate desires. In lieu of a fully-functioning frontal cortex, nature has given children an external executive override, commonly referred to as “parents.” It is a necessary part of childhood to not get what you want all the time, and to learn to live with it.
Time after time, parents bring their children in for “behavioral concerns.” Within two minutes of being in the same room with them, it is apparent who the boss is. (Hint: not the adult.) The parents wonder why their children do not listen to their instructions, to which the only response is “why should they?” “Why,” I ask, “are you negotiating with your preschooler? You are not peers. Sometimes ‘because I said so’ is an age-appropriate response.” Children aren’t dummies, and will very quickly learn that their parents will bend to their will if resisted. They actually need to be frustrated and stymied in certain pursuits, to feel negative consequences of bad decisions. They will not spontaneously obey their parents out of innate respect for their authority. It’s obviously important for there to be a good balance between fostering autonomy and a sense of agency, and teaching children to respect their parents and learn limits. But an astounding number of mothers and fathers remind me of Ned Flanders’s parents, who’ve “tried doing nothing” and have no other ideas.
There is so much in this article I agree with that it is tempting to comment on every single paragraph. Rather than doing so, I will simply recommend that anyone interested read the whole thing. For my own part, of course I want my son to grow up and be happy. But what I really want is that he will grow up to be good — to be decent and industrious and compassionate. I want him to work hard, to appreciate the world around him and to care about the welfare of other people. I want him to grow into a good man. If he does, I believe the happiness will follow.
(Cross-posted at the main page.)