Letters to the editor

Responses and reverberations

How to Land Your Kid in Therapy

Lori Gottlieb’s July/August cover story told coddling mothers and fathers that their parenting techniques were ruining their children. Parents, therapists, teachers, and even kids wrote in to share their perspective.

Lori Gottlieb and the psychologists she cites have found a new way to blame parents. Instead of the old nasty, cold, or absent parents, today’s parents are too protective and permissive, offer too many choices, build false self-esteem through undeserved praise, and cling to adult children to fill their own lonely needs. What is fascinating to this old psychiatrist is Dr. Gottlieb’s failure to mention nonfamilial causes of despair like economic depression, global warming, nuclear and cyber terrorism, famine, drought, disease, and existential despair, all of which are beyond parental influence. With all deference to Philip Larkin, your parents did not “fuck you up”; being born did. I suggest we accept our fate, not find a new way to blame our parents, and work toward a better world outside of the therapist’s office.

William S. Appleton, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
Cambridge, Mass.

Research examining parent/child ties reveals findings different from those observed by therapists. Our study examining hundreds of parents and thousands of grown children confirmed Gottlieb’s assertion that parents today are more involved in their grown children’s lives than was the case 30 years ago. A quarter of young adults reported receiving financial, practical, and emotional support from their parents several times a week. These young adults did not suffer mental-health problems, however, or have difficulties making decisions. Quite the opposite: young adults who had the closest relationships with parents reported the best psychological adjustment.

Certainly, some young adults are smothered by parental overinvolvement. But young adults today confront difficult economic circumstances, high demands for education, and uncertainties in finding a mate. For many of them, turning to loving parents who have life experience and resources is beneficial.

Karen Fingerman
Director, Adult Family Study
Austin, Texas

As a therapist and a mom, I thought this article was right on. The most prevalent issue I see, especially among the 20-something set of patients, is the struggle with being ordinary. Underneath it are the feelings we as a society have come to name the “mid-20s crisis"—a lack of direction professionally and in relationships, and a sense that one can do anything and yet a simultaneous feeling of inadequacy and falseness.

Instead of trying to be happy all the time, my patients, and my 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, need to work on feeling sad, scared, disappointed, and angry, and having that not feel catastrophic to their experience of themselves.

Cara Maniaci Behrman
TheAtlantic.com comment

What Gottlieb doesn't mention in her article is that tens of millions of non-spoiled children still exist right here in the U.S. of A. Where are they? One needs only to peek outside the professional class. Child-rearing still varies sharply by class in America, and if Gottlieb and her sources were to go hang out at a Walmart in Appalachia, or a park in a poor neighborhood, I suspect they'd be delighted to find lots of parents taking exactly the non-coddling, limited-choice approach they think this country needs.

Jay Gabler
Excerpt from The Tangential blog post

It is amazing that Lori Gottlieb spoke to experts, authors, and therapists to come to a conclusion that, to some of us parents, is exceedingly obvious. Good job—you deserve a participation award.

Michael Nedeltscheff
Philadelphia, Pa.

In the great quest for their children’s self-esteem, parents have missed the one factor that makes self-esteem so rewarding—namely, that it has been earned. It is most certainly not something that can be given to, or forced on, another person.

Andrea Economos
Scarsdale, N.Y.

Clearly, Lori Gottlieb has not recently spent time in a public school, which is a very ego-crushing place. The worth of individuals is determined by how well students perform as compared to their peers. Most students who do not end up in the highest-level classes or receive the highest grades are likely to feel either worthless or stupid. The “trophy for everybody ”philosophy has little effect on self-esteem. Kids are generally able to tell when a trophy or honorable mention is not deserved, so this philosophy merely deflates the value of the trophy. The only people the adults are fooling in giving out these trophies are themselves.

Neil Muscat
Student, Hershey High School
Hummelstown, Pa.

Celebrity Tweets of the Month

This is a GREAT read for any parent or future parent - How to Land Your Kid In Therapy

@TheAtlantic I'm going to print it out and put it in my “baby ”folder.


Lori Gottlieb replies:

I'm thrilled that this piece has generated a discussion among parents, psychologists, young adults, educators, and employers. I'm sorry, however, that William Appleton feels that I and the experts I interviewed are blaming parents. Instead, the intention was to provide some perspective that could help parents relax a little. Just as one expert in the piece noted that “there’s a difference between being loved and being constantly monitored, ”there’s also a difference between informing and blaming. As a parent who tends toward the helicopter end of the spectrum, I found reporting this piece to be tremendously eye-opening. While the takeaway is what we all know deep down—that there’s no one “right ”way to raise children and no such thing as a perfect parent—I'm now more aware that my need to take my child’s emotional temperature is more about my parental anxiety than about what my son really needs. It’s also true, as Appleton says, that “being born ”is a challenging condition in itself, but that’s exactly why many of the experts were suggesting that the more our children learn to manage life’s difficulties rather than have these difficulties managed for them, the better off they'll be in the long run.

Karen Fingerman is right on with the research she cites: close, supportive, and loving relationships with parents do tend to make for better-adjusted kids. In my piece, however, I'm making a distinction that many parents (myself included) struggle with. That is, being involved, loving, and supportive is different from doing everything we can so that our children don't have to experience disappointment, rejection, failure, and the realization that they might be ordinary (like the majority of us) and don't deserve special treatment from everybody they encounter.

Kudos to Michael Nedeltscheff for already knowing all of this. His children are very lucky.

Neil Muscat says that public school is a very ego-crushing place, and I'd add that the world at large is great for our humility. He echoes what I say in the article: that kids start to feel “worthless or stupid ”because they've always been told by their parents that they are supremely extraordinary, and so they have no sense of authentic worth (character, kindness, a true talent in one area). They know that trophies are divorced from merit, and that the world (teachers, employers) doesn't applaud and yell “Good job! ”just because they breathed in and breathed out. All the more reason to prepare kids for life outside the parental bubble.

By the Numbers

Lori Gottlieb’s July/August cover story, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy, ”was the most “liked ”story on Facebook to date. Here’s how some recent cover stories stack up:

The Brain, Genes, and Justice

David Eagleman’s July/August study of how neuroscience is changing jurisprudence, "The Brain on Trial," conjured many literary and cinematic analogies in readers' minds, from Brave New World to A Clockwork Orange to Minority Report.

David Eagleman recommends that our sentencing and prison systems switch to focusing on what we do “moving forward, ”using a “scientific approach. ”However, all of the genetic and actuarial statistics and studies he cites suggest we are already unwittingly doing this.

Eagleman has no explanation, besides better policing, for the significant and steady drop in violent crime that started in the 1990s. But might we not conclude from Eagleman’s list of the genetic markers of those in prison that our prisons are the largest genetic-engineering experiment ever undertaken? Did the explosion of prison populations thanks to more and longer sentences in the 1970s and '80s lead, at least in part, to the downward trend in crime starting two decades later? Did we reduce the “criminal gene pool ”through genetic segregation of criminals from the general reproductive population?

Eagleman wants us to shine our newfound scientific knowledge on lawbreakers, but if we truly want to be forward-looking, this same predictive knowledge could be used to scan the entire population and allow us to take corrective action before any crime occurs. Forced sterilization and Dr. Mengele aside, isn't our scientific knowledge taking us inexorably toward consideration of engineering a better race?

Karl Felsen
Guilderland, N.Y.

Eagleman offers a compelling argument for a need to update how our justice system addresses blue-collar criminals. But what revisions do we pursue for the high-profile white-collar criminal, who is a far greater menace to society? Eagleman’s prefrontal workout is designed to better balance the debate between the long- and short-term parties of the brain. Perhaps this strategy would deter the bank robber, the sexual predator, the carjacker. But society’s most dangerous felons—the Bernie Madoffs, the Kenneth Lays—achieved their goals and ruined thousands of lives precisely because they were so adept at deferring short-term gains in order to build their complex scams over the long haul. It would seem, then, that Eagleman’s prescription to revise an antiquated legal system may have some potential to reduce the crimes of Mean Street but certainly not the crimes of Wall Street.

David Werdegar
Naperville, Ill.

David Eagleman replies:

Brains develop as a complex interaction of genes and environment. This is why there is no such thing as “criminal genes, ”and hence no meaningful concept of anti-criminal eugenics. Karl Felsen may have been confused by my pointing out that genes do play a role in brain development—hence my example that more carriers of the Y chromosome (males) are in prison than females—but that only leads to the critical next question: Why aren't all males criminals? While genes introduce predispositions, the rest of development is steered by experiences and environment. Modern science does not aim to purge a fictitious “criminal gene pool"; it seeks to improve society through bettering the social fabric, stemming violence and abuse, and identifying toxins that harm brain development.

As for white-collar crimes, they often can be understood as the outcome of battles between short- and long-term decision-making mechanisms in the brain—just as with more-pedestrian criminal activity. After all, the (typically high-IQ) white-collar criminals are typically well aware of the laws and the possibility of getting caught (long-term considerations), but the temptation of the dangling cash-carrot overwhelms the vote in the neural parliament.

Fix or Fraud?

In response to David H. Freedman’s "The Triumph of New-Age Medicine" (July/August), The Atlantic hosted what The Chicago Tribune described as “a very interesting and unusually civilized debate, ”with medical experts on both sides of the issue weighing in. Read the whole discussion at theatlantic.com/debates/alternative-medicine. Here are some highlights.

My colleagues and I at the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute ... published the first randomized controlled trial showing that lifestyle changes may slow, stop, or even reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer, and may affect breast cancer as well.

Our latest research showed that changing lifestyle changes our genes in only three months—turning on hundreds of genes that prevent disease and turning off genes associated with breast cancer and prostate cancer, as well as genes that cause heart disease, oxidative stress, and inflammation. We also found that these lifestyle changes increase telomerase, the enzyme that lengthens telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that control how long we live. Even drugs have not been shown to do this.

As Freedman’s article points out, our “health-care system ”is primarily a disease-care system. Last year, $2.6 trillion were spent in this country on medical care, and 95 cents of every dollar were spent to treat disease after it had already occurred. Heart disease, diabetes, prostate/breast cancer, and obesity account for 75 percent of health-care costs, and yet these are largely preventable and even reversible by an integrative-medicine program of comprehensive lifestyle changes.

Dean Ornish, M.D.

The article is a prime example of a rather effective sales technique, much beloved of used-car salesmen and health hucksters. It’s called bait and switch.

It’s true that medicine can't cure everything. That’s hardly surprising given that serious research has been going on for barely 100 years, and it turns out that humans are quite complicated. But the answer is not to invent fairy stories, which is what the alternative-medicine industry does. There is no sensible option but to keep the research going and to test its results honestly ...

The idea of patient-centered care is fashionable—and care is great, if you can't cure. But there’s a whole spectrum in the well-being industry, from serious attempts to make people happier to the downright nuts. The problem is that caring for patients makes a very good bait, and the switch to a sales pitch for mumbo jumbo tends to follow not far behind.

David Colquhoun, Ph.D., F.R.S.

I give credit to the enthusiasm and passion of the small band of deeply anti-alternative-medicine warriors who have voiced their displeasure with my article. And let’s be clear, this is a very small band ...

I point out high up in the piece, and with no bones about it, that science has pretty clearly shown that the core treatments of alternative medicine don't provide the direct physical effects that they are claimed to provide by practitioners. They work via the placebo effect. Now could someone please explain to me how it is that I could be defending pseudoscience in an article in which I so clearly say it’s pseudoscience, and that it doesn't provide the claimed benefits? I do suggest there’s a placebo benefit—but so do my critics. We're in perfect agreement.

David H. Freedman

By the Numbers

Of those readers who expressed an opinion about David H. Freedman’s article, 38 percent said alternative medicine does not work and 62 percent said alternative medicine works, or could work.

Congressional Fix-It List

In response to former Congressman Mickey Edwards’s July/August article, "How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans," readers offered their own ideas for keeping Congress members honest, and closer to the people they represent.

Members of Congress should ...

•  no longer make laws that do not apply to themselves.

• have a pension plan that matches other federal plans.

• participate in Social Security and the same health-care system as the rest of America.

• be bound by a non-compete law: upon leaving office, they can't work (or lobby) for any entity interacting with Congress, or earn money by dealing with the laws and rules they passed.

• be required to live in Washington for at least half of each week.

• create an independent Office of Truth, charged with reviewing their statements and pointing out inaccuracies large and small.

• lengthen terms, but serve only one term.

• institute a salary cap for candidates.

• eliminate corporate donations to candidates.

• decouple committee chairmanships from seniority.

Fishy Correction

A reader writes in just for the halibut.

When he observes that “you can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish ”("What’s Your Problem?," July/August), Jeffrey Goldberg is trenchant and witty—but wrong. In fact, the feat is not even terribly difficult. One need merely possess the right scales.

Tom Flynn
Buffalo, N.Y.