Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

How to Land Your Kid in Therapy

Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods. A therapist and mother reports.
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Child-rearing has long been a touchy subject in America, perhaps because the stakes are so high and the theories so inconclusive. In her book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, Ann Hulbert recounts how there’s always been a tension among the various recommended parenting styles—the bonders versus the disciplinarians, the child-centered versus the parent-centered—with the pendulum swinging back and forth between them over the decades. Yet the underlying goal of good parenting, even during the heyday of don’t-hug-your-kid-too-much advice in the 1920s (“When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument,” the behavioral psychologist John Watson wrote in his famous guide to child-rearing), has long been the same: to raise children who will grow into productive, happy adults. My parents certainly wanted me to be happy, and my grandparents wanted my parents to be happy too. What seems to have changed in recent years, though, is the way we think about and define happiness, both for our children and for ourselves.

Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier. The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way. “I am happy,” writes Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project, a book that topped the New York Times best-seller list and that has spawned something of a national movement in happiness-seeking, “but I’m not as happy as I should be.”

How happy should she be? Rubin isn’t sure. She sounds exactly like some of my patients. She has two wonderful parents; a “tall, dark, and handsome” (and wealthy) husband she loves; two healthy, “delightful” children; a strong network of friends; a beautiful neo-Georgian mansion on the Upper East Side; a law degree from Yale; and a successful career as a freelance writer. Still, Rubin writes, she feels “dissatisfied, that something [is] missing.” So to counteract her “bouts of melancholy, insecurity, listlessness, and free-floating guilt,” she goes on a “happiness journey,” making lists and action items, buying three new magazines every Monday for a month, and obsessively organizing her closets.

At one point during her journey, Rubin admits that she still struggles, despite the charts and resolutions and yearlong effort put into being happy. “In some ways,” she writes, “I’d made myself less happy.” Then she adds, citing one of her so-called Secrets of Adulthood, “Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.”

Modern social science backs her up on this. “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.

Which made me think, of course, of my own sprints across the sand the second my toddler would fall. And of the time when he was 4 and a friend of mine died of cancer and I considered … not telling him! After all, he didn’t even know she’d been sick (once, commenting on her head scarves, he’d asked me if she was an Orthodox Jew, and like a wuss, I said no, she just really likes scarves). I knew he might notice that we didn’t see her anymore, but all of the parenting listservs I consulted said that hearing about a parent’s death would be too scary for a child, and that, without lying (because God forbid that we enlightened, attuned parents ever lie to our children), I should sugarcoat it in all these ways that I knew would never withstand my preschooler’s onslaught of cross-examining whys.

In the end, I told my son the truth. He asked a lot of questions, but he did not faint from the shock. If anything, according to Bohn, my trusting him to handle the news probably made him more trusting of me, and ultimately more emotionally secure. By telling him, I was communicating that I believed he could tolerate sadness and anxiety, and that I was here to help him through it. Not telling him would have sent a very different message: that I didn’t feel he could handle discomfort. And that’s a message many of us send our kids in subtle ways every day.

Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, warns against what he calls our “discomfort with discomfort” in his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. If kids can’t experience painful feelings, Kindlon told me when I called him not long ago, 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. 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.’”

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.”

Which might be how people like my patient Lizzie end up in therapy. “You can have the best parenting in the world and you’ll still go through periods where you’re not happy,” Jeff Blume, a family psychologist with a busy practice in Los Angeles, told me when I spoke to him recently. “A kid needs to feel normal anxiety to be resilient. If we want our kids to grow up and be more independent, then we should prepare our kids to leave us every day.”

But that’s a big if. 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. Kindlon and Mogel both told me the same thing. Yes, we devote inordinate amounts of time, energy, and resources to our children, but for whose benefit?

“We’re confusing our own needs with our kids’ needs and calling it good parenting,” Blume said, letting out a sigh. I asked him why he sighed. (This is what happens when two therapists have a conversation.) “It’s sad to watch,” he explained. “I can’t tell you how often I have to say to parents that they’re putting too much emphasis on their kids’ feelings because of their own issues. If a therapist is telling you to pay less attention to your kid’s feelings, you know something has gotten way of out of whack.”

Last October, in an article for the New York Times Magazine, Renée Bacher, a mother in Louisiana, described the emptiness she felt as she sent her daughter off to college in the Northeast. Bacher tried getting support from other mother friends, who, it turned out, were too busy picking up a refrigerator for a child’s college dorm room or rushing home to turn off a high-schooler’s laptop. And while Bacher initially justified her mother-hen actions as being in her daughter’s best interest—coming up with excuses to vet her daughter’s roommate or staying too long in her daughter’s dorm room under the guise of helping her move in—eventually she concluded: “As with all Helicopter Parenting, this was about me.”

Bacher isn’t unusual. Wendy Mogel says that 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, she said, 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. She said that many 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.

“There’s a difference between being loved and being constantly monitored,” Dan Kindlon told me. And yet, he admitted, even he struggles. “I’m about to become an empty-nester,” he said, “and sometimes I feel like I’d burn my kids’ college applications just to have somebody to hang around with. We have less community nowadays—we’re more isolated as adults, more people are divorced—and we genuinely like spending time with our kids. We hope they’ll think of us as their best friends, which is different from parents who wanted their kids to appreciate them, but didn’t need them to be their pals. But many of us text with our kids several times a day, and would miss it if it didn’t happen. So instead of being peeved that they ask for help with the minutiae of their days, we encourage it.”

Long work hours don’t help. “If you’ve got 20 minutes a day to spend with your kid,” Kindlon asked, “would you rather make your kid mad at you by arguing over cleaning up his room, or play a game of Boggle together? We don’t set limits, because we want our kids to like us at every moment, even though it’s better for them if sometimes they can’t stand us.”

Kindlon also observed that because we tend to have fewer kids than past generations of parents did, each becomes more precious. So we demand more from them—more companionship, more achievement, more happiness. Which is where the line between selflessness (making our kids happy) and selfishness (making ourselves happy) becomes especially thin.

“We want our kids to be happy living the life we envision for them—the banker who’s happy, the surgeon who’s happy,” Barry Schwartz, the Swarthmore social scientist, told me, even though those professions “might not actually make them happy.” At least for parents of a certain demographic (and if you’re reading this article, you’re likely among them), “we’re not so happy if our kids work at Walmart but show up each day with a smile on their faces,” Schwartz says. “They’re happy, but we’re not. Even though we say what we want most for our kids is their happiness, and we’ll do everything we can to help them achieve that, it’s unclear where parental happiness ends and our children’s happiness begins.”

His comment reminded me of a conversation I’d just had with a camp director when I inquired about the program. She was going down the list of activities for my child’s age group, and when she got to basketball, T-ball, and soccer, she quickly added, “But of course, it’s all noncompetitive. We don’t encourage competition.” I had to laugh: all of these kids being shunted away from “competition” as if it were kryptonite. Not to get too shrink-y, but could this be a way for parents to work out their ambivalence about their own competitive natures?

It may be this question—and our unconscious struggle with it—that accounts for the scathing reaction to Amy Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, earlier this year. Chua’s efforts “not to raise a soft, entitled child” were widely attacked on blogs and mommy listservs as abusive, yet that didn’t stop the book from spending several months on the New York Times best-seller list. Sure, some parents might have read it out of pure voyeurism, but more likely, Chua’s book resonated so powerfully because she isn’t so different from her critics. She may have been obsessed with her kids’ success at the expense of their happiness—but many of today’s parents who are obsessed with their kids’ happiness share Chua’s drive, just wrapped in a prettier package. Ours is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach, a desire for high achievement without the sacrifice and struggle that this kind of achievement often requires. When the Tiger Mom looked unsparingly at her parental contradictions, perhaps she made the rest of us squirm because we were forced to examine our own.

Chua, says Wendy Mogel, “was admitting in such a candid way what loads of people think but just don’t own up to.” In her practice, Mogel meets many parents who let kids off the hook for even basic, simple chores so they can spend more time on homework. Are these parents being too lenient (letting the chores slide), or too hard-core (teaching that good grades are more important than being a responsible family member)? Mogel and Dan Kindlon agree that whatever form it takes—whether the fixation is happiness or success—parental overinvestment is contributing to a burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids.

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Lori Gottlieb is the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

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