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.

The irony is that measures of self-esteem are poor predictors of how content a person will be, especially if the self-esteem comes from constant accommodation and praise rather than earned accomplishment. According to Jean Twenge, research shows that much better predictors of life fulfillment and success are perseverance, resiliency, and reality-testing—qualities that people need so they can navigate the day-to-day.

Earlier this year, I met with a preschool teacher who told me that in her observation, many kids aren’t learning these skills anymore. She declined to be named, for fear of alienating parents who expect teachers to agree with their child-rearing philosophy, so I’ll call her Jane.

Let’s say, Jane explained, that a mother is over by the sign-in sheet, and her son has raced off to play. Suddenly the mother sees her kid fighting over a toy with a classmate. Her child has the dump truck, and the other kid grabs it. Her child yells, “No! That’s mine!” The two argue while the other kid continues to play with the truck, until finally the other kid says, “This one is yours!” and tosses her child a crappy one. Realizing the other kid won’t budge, her child says, “Okay,” and plays with the crappy toy.

“Her kid is fine,” Jane said. “But the mother will come running over and say, ‘But that’s not fair! Little Johnnie had the big truck, and you can’t just grab it away. It was his turn.’ Well, the kids were fine with it. Little Johnnie was resilient! We do teach the kids not to grab, but it’s going to happen sometimes, and kids need to learn how to work things out themselves. The kid can cope with adversity, but the parent is reeling, and I end up spending my time calming down the parent while her kid is off happily playing.”

Jane told me that because parents are so sensitive to how every interaction is processed, sometimes she feels like she’s walking on eggshells while trying to do her job. If, for instance, a couple of kids are doing something they’re not supposed to—name-calling, climbing on a table, throwing sand—her instinct would be to say “Hey, knock it off, you two!” But, she says, she’d be fired for saying that, because you have to go talk with the kids, find out what they were feeling, explain what else they could do with that feeling other than call somebody a “poopy face” or put sand in somebody’s hair, and then help them mutually come up with a solution.

“We try to be so correct in our language and our discipline that we forget the true message we’re trying to send—which is, don’t name-call and don’t throw the sand!” she said. “But by the time we’re done ‘talking it through,’ the kids don’t want to play anymore, a rote apology is made, and they’ll do it again five minutes later, because they kind of got a pass. ‘Knock it off’ works every time, because they already know why it’s wrong, and the message is concise and clear. But to keep my job, I have to go and explore their feelings.”

Another teacher I spoke with, a 58-year-old mother of grown children who has been teaching kindergarten for 17 years, told me she feels that parents are increasingly getting in the way of their children’s development. “I see the way their parents treat them,” she said, “and there’s a big adjustment when they get into my class. It’s good for them to realize that they aren’t the center of the world, that sometimes other people’s feelings matter more than theirs at a particular moment—but it only helps if they’re getting the same limit-setting at home. If not, they become impulsive, because they’re not thinking about anybody else.”

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!’”

Barry Schwartz, at Swarthmore, believes that well-meaning parents give their kids so much choice on a daily basis that the children become not just entitled, but paralyzed. “The ideology of our time is that choice is good and more choice is better,” he said. “But we’ve found that’s not true.”

In one study Schwartz and his team conducted, kids were randomly divided into two groups and then asked to draw a picture. Kids in one group were asked to choose a marker to use from among three; kids in the other group were asked to choose from among 24 markers. Afterward, when the pictures were evaluated by an elementary-school art teacher who did not know which group had produced which pictures, the drawings rated the “worst” were by and large created by kids in the 24-marker group. Then, in a second part of the experiment, the researchers had the kids pick one marker from their set to keep as a gift. Once the kids had chosen, the researchers tried to persuade them to give back their marker in exchange for other gifts. The kids who had chosen from 24 markers did this far more easily than those who had chosen from only three markers. According to Schwartz, this suggests that the kids who had fewer markers to select from not only focused better on their drawings, but also committed more strongly to their original gift choice.

What does this have to do with parenting? Kids feel safer and less anxious with fewer choices, Schwartz says; fewer options help them to commit to some things and let go of others, a skill they’ll need later in life.

“Research shows that people get more satisfaction from working hard at one thing, and that those who always need to have choices and keep their options open get left behind,” Schwartz told me. “I’m not saying don’t let your kid try out various interests or activities. I’m saying give them choices, but within reason. Most parents tell kids, ‘You can do anything you want, you can quit any time, you can try this other thing if you’re not 100 percent satisfied with the other.’ It’s no wonder they live their lives that way as adults, too.” He sees this in students who graduate from Swarthmore. “They can’t bear the thought that saying yes to one interest or opportunity means saying no to everything else, so they spend years hoping that the perfect answer will emerge. What they don’t understand is that they’re looking for the perfect answer when they should be looking for the good-enough answer.”

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.” Mogel puts it even more bluntly: what parents are creating with all this choice are anxious and entitled kids whom she describes as “handicapped royalty.”

As a parent, I’m all too familiar with this. I never said to my son, “Here’s your grilled-cheese sandwich.” I’d say, “Do you want the grilled cheese or the fish sticks?” On a Saturday, I’d say, “Do you want to go to the park or the beach?” Sometimes, if my preschooler was having a meltdown over the fact that we had to go to the grocery store, instead of swooping him up and wrestling him into the car, I’d give him a choice: “Do you want to go to Trader Joe’s or Ralphs?” (Once we got to the market, it was “Do you want the vanilla yogurt or the peach?”) But after I’d set up this paradigm, we couldn’t do anything unless he had a choice. One day when I said to him, “Please put your shoes on, we’re going to Trader Joe’s,” he replied matter-of-factly: “What are my other choices?” I told him there were no other choices—we needed something from Trader Joe’s. “But it’s not fair if I don’t get to decide too!” he pleaded ingenuously. He’d come to expect unlimited choice.

When I was my son’s age, I didn’t routinely get to choose my menu, or where to go on weekends—and the friends I asked say they didn’t, either. There was some negotiation, but not a lot, and we were content with that. We didn’t expect so much choice, so it didn’t bother us not to have it until we were older, when we were ready to handle the responsibility it requires. But today, Twenge says, “we treat our kids like adults when they’re children, and we infantilize them when they’re 18 years old.”

Like most of my peers, I’d always thought that providing choices to young children gave them a valuable sense of agency, and allowed them to feel more in control. But Barry Schwartz’s research shows that too much choice makes people more likely to feel depressed and out of control.

It makes sense. I remember how overwhelmed and anxious I felt that day I visited the parenting aisle at Barnes & Noble and was confronted by all those choices. How much easier things would be if there weren’t hundreds of parenting books and listservs and experts that purport to have the answers, when the truth is, there is no single foolproof recipe for raising a child.

And yet, underlying all this parental angst is the hopeful belief that if we just make the right choices, that if we just do things a certain way, our kids will turn out to be not just happy adults, but adults that make us happy. This is a misguided notion, because while nurture certainly matters, it doesn’t completely trump nature, and different kinds of nurture work for different kinds of kids (which explains why siblings can have very different experiences of their childhoods under the same roof). We can expose our kids to art, but we can’t teach them creativity. We can try to protect them from nasty classmates and bad grades and all kinds of rejection and their own limitations, but eventually they will bump up against these things anyway. In fact, by trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood, we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up. Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do—and some letting go.

As Wendy Mogel likes to say, “Our children are not our masterpieces.”

Indeed. Recently, I noticed that one of my patients had, after a couple of sessions of therapy, started to seem uncomfortable. When I probed a bit, he admitted that he felt ambivalent about being in treatment. I asked why.

“My parents would feel like failures if they knew I was here,” he explained. “At the same time, maybe they’d be glad I’m here, because they just want me to be happy. So I’m not sure if they’d be relieved that I’ve come here to be happier, or disappointed that I’m not already happy.”

He paused and then asked, “Do you know what I mean?”

I nodded like a therapist, and then I answered like a parent who can imagine her son grappling with that very same question one day. “Yes,” I said to my patient. “I know exactly what you mean.”

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

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