Obsession with Our Children’s Happiness Could Doom Them


I’ve been doing it all wrong. This whole parenting gig. Seriously.

After I read the cover story of the July/August issue of The Atlantic, which told parents that if you’re focusing on trying to make your kids happy you’re likely gearing them up for future therapy sessions to undo all the super-positive, encouraging blather you’ve been feeding them, I was initially ticked off.


I felt duped because when my almost 13-year-olds were just babies, I voraciously devoured everything I could get my hands on to educate myself about parenting. I wanted to do the “right” thing for my kids – as though there is a “right” way to do things – and there were oodles of so-called parenting “experts” out there who were more than happy to provide me with their blueprint of how to do this child-rearing thing “correctly.”

Only now, another group of experts is telling us that the stuff we parents were spoon-fed a decade-plus ago is resulting in unhappy young adults who can’t seem to handle the real, harsh world in which not everyone gets a trophy for showing up to work and not everyone is nice nor do they dole out compliments, stickers and candy for simply responding to a question. I took this article personally as I’m constantly struggling to be what the popular culture has described as a “good mother.”

Lori Gottlieb, a therapist, wrote in The Atlantic that she has had a steady stream of twentysomething and young thirtysomething patients tell her that while their childhoods were wonderful and their parents devoted to them, they now feel depressed, anxious, unable to commit to relationships or careers and experience “a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose.”

“[These patients] did seem to have caring and loving parents, parents who gave them the freedom to ‘find themselves’ and the encouragement to do anything they wanted in life,” she wrote. “Parents who had driven carpools, and helped with homework each night, and intervened when there was a bully at school or a birthday invitation was not received, and had gotten them tutors when they struggled in math and music lessons when they expressed an interest in guitar (but let them quit when they lost interest), and talked through their feelings when they broke the rules, instead of punishing them (‘logical consequences’ always stood in for punishment).”

She then brought the hammer down on parents like me who, when we attempt to “fix” things for our kids (instead of having the kids fix things for themselves), when we run around and try to make them happy (instead of having the children find and create their own happiness), when we make them the center of a sheltered world (instead of letting them make themselves feel safe), we don’t end up with fully fledged young adults who are ready and confident to take on the world.

A child psychologist and Harvard lecturer told Gottlieb that when we parents follow the previous advice and attempt to shield our kids and overly dwell on boosting their self esteem, we’re preventing them from developing a crucial aspect of the maturation process: Psychological immunity. The psychologist told Gottlieb: “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 a school play or make the cut for the baseball team.”

Another psychology professor who studies narcissism chimed in to further indict today’s doting parents: “Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are. This gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.” And then they enter the real world and that carefully constructed, happy world their parents provided for them falls apart “and they start to feel lost and helpless.”

But wait, isn’t this what we were told “good” parents did, supported their children, got them involved in activities, doled out praise and helped them with homework? I distinctly remember reading articles which gave me marching orders on how to enhance my children’s self esteem. And the schools are constantly stressing that I need to be heavily involved in my children’s education in order for them to succeed. When my children were younger, I read several articles, for example, that urged parents not use the word “no” with young children and to instead find alternative language so as not to be negative. We were also told to give children the illusion of choices when it came to matters large and small, allowing the rug rats, for example, to think that what parents serve for dinner is up to them. I attended a parenting seminar when my twins were toddlers and was told by the “expert” that it was ill-advised for parents to punish children for misbehaving and that parents should try to address the concerns and emotions of the child who’s acting out. If one sibling strikes another, this expert said parents were supposed to ignore the victim and focus on the assailant who had the outburst, make that kid feel safe and give him or her the opportunity to vent. Oh, and we weren’t supposed to use time-outs or take away privileges to attempt to correct behavior. Though I didn’t buy into that “no punishment” business, I was plagued with guilt any time I did say, “no” and fretted about damaging their self esteem during the everyday conflicts that are the inevitable byproducts of family life.

Even now, I find myself out of fatigued because I’m constantly running on that annoying hamster wheel of modern parenthood, trying to make sure that my three kids are happy because that’s what I thought parents are supposed to do? If my children are upset about something, I immediately try to make it better. When they have disputes, I don an invisible referee jersey and attempt to get them to see other points of view, like those articles suggested.

Now they tell me I don’t need to exhaust myself and do all that? Gottlieb et al are giving me permission to stop obsessing about making everybody happy because it’s actually counterproductive? Well all right then, I think I’ve seen the light. If I don’t have to spend all that time fretting, that’ll sure free up a whole heck of lot of space in my schedule and give me the chance to attend to those gray hairs that all this worrying has spawned.



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