The Today Show was playing on my television set, as usual, while I made my bed this morning. Also as usual, I paid only a bit of attention to it, here and there, as I was starting my day. I turned to watch it when I heard Matt Lauer announce a segment about parents obsessing over their kids’ happiness. This piqued my interest since I have kids and, of course, want them to be happy. One of the guests was Lori Gottlieb, author of a very provocative article in The Atlantic entitled. “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.”
In a nutshell, Gottlieb suggests that “by protecting our children from unhappiness as kids, we are depriving them of happiness as adults.” An interesting premise, indeed. Gottlieb presents an interesting argument, backed with logical and convincing support. This got me thinking…. am I THAT parent?
You know the kind I’m talking about, the parent who constantly praises their kid – even for the most ridiculous things (“I love the way you’re holding that book”), the one who signs their kid up for EVERY activity your school and/or community offer – regardless of the kid’s interest or ability, the one who defends their eight year old to the teacher who reports a fairly benign classroom incident, and states, “It seems to me that you just don’t like my son/daughter.” This is the same parent who repeatedly “helps” their kid with important school projects (translation: completes the assignment for them), which can be confirmed by said kid bragging about such to classmates. This boggles my mind. Why do parents do this? It just seems so crazy to me. Do parents really want to save their kids from the unhappiness that would occur from failing? Or, do parents see their kids for as extensions of themselves and are, therefore, unable to admit the faults of their kids because to do so would mean that they themselves are flawed? And, consequently, to have their kids experience unhappiness and disappointment results in their own unhappiness and disappointment.
immediately I thought of Janet Chiauzzi, the mother from Long Island who was recently arrested on stalking charges for threatening the coach of her son’s Little League team (and his wife and daughter) when her son failed to make the travel team. Was she going WAY overboard in trying to prevent her eleven year old son from a little disappointment and unhappiness? Could she be a mother with the best of intentions for her son, but clearly with a misguided sense of appropriate behavior? Or is she maybe she is just unable to admit that her son is not that good at baseball because to do so would be to admit that she herself is flawed in some way. Clearly she’ll get no argument there.
As a high school English teacher I can confirm that most kids are not receptive to constructive criticism. Many panic and “freak out” if their grade is not above a 90 on any assignment. They complain that they don’t understand why they received the grade assigned, even when it is laid out for them in a grading rubric. But the reaction of the parents is often worse than that of the student. In fact, in my first year teaching, I had a student who was, shall we say, less than stellar. She performed well when she put forth the effort, which was about 50% of the time. Her mother “blew a gasket” when the grades coming home were less than she expected. At parent-teacher conference night she confronted me, asking that I explain my grading process. I pulled out several of her daughter’s pop quizzes. These quizzes were designed to check if the student was completing the required reading assignments in that they asked only basic plot questions – no analysis. Her daughter routinely scored a 1 out 5 on these quizzes. This was meaningless to mom. She insisted that her daughter was reading. This mother was so upset with her daughter’s progress in my class that she call my assistant principal almost daily to complain about me. I threw my hands in the air, baffled.
My very favorite story about a parent’s misguided defense of their kid comes from a retired college professor. This professor assigned a research term paper to her freshman class. Since this was back before the proliferation of the home computer and the internet (late 1980’s), she handed out a completed paper for the students to use as a sample of what she was looking for. One of her students actually submitted THE SAME EXACT PAPER, retyped, as their own. When the professor assigned a failing grade to the assignment, the student’s father called the professor to complain. The professor explained the situation (the fact that the student had copied the paper the professor handed out – CHEATED), Dad simply argued that he felt his son had gotten enough out of the assignment simply by reading and retyping the paper. I kid you not, as the professor in this case is my mother.
I like to think that I’m not this kind of parent. Sure, I tell my kids they do a good job when they tie their shoes, but only when they are first learning to tie them, not when they’re in high school. Do I run to my kids when they fall? Of course I do. I’m human. However, I am well aware of what my kids are good at and what they’re not. I don’t force activities that I prefer just because I like them. I also don’t condone quitting midway through. Case in point: when my daughter decided halfway through basketball season that she no longer enjoyed playing, she played through the end of the season, as her step-father and I reminded her that she made a commitment to the team and needed to to honor it. We discussed it. And to us, that is really the most important part. We didn’t “make” her continue with basketball per say. We did “strongly suggest” it, and we explained why. She told us what she was upset and concerned about. We discussed ways to deal with those feelings (not avoid them). She understood why we felt it was important to honor her commitment and agreed. The rest, as they say, is history.
A wise friend once told me that it’s okay to feel a feeling; and just because you feel it doesn’t mean that you become it. You may feel like a disappointment to your parents (and yourself), but that doesn’t make you an actual disappointment. The feeling will pass, you will survive, and the world will not end.