Is it possible to be TOO loved as a child? Owen Marcus discusses the balance parents and children must find between too much protection and too much freedom.
How often were you told no? Was competition discouraged during your childhood? Did your parents always “make things right” for you? Were you often given many choices? Were you discouraged from making mistakes, or from failing as a way to learn and grow?
The more yes answers you had, the more likely you were “loved too much.” But how can loving too much be a bad thing? Simple. It creates an overly-protected life, where a child is controlled by an omniscient adult. It’s a life that is not real.
More and more parents are coddling their children, trying to give them a “perfect childhood.” They seem to think that if nothing goes wrong for their children, they have done their job right. In this post I write about Alice Miller explaining many years ago how parents’ unfulfilled needs are attempted to be fulfilled through their children. There is a long tradition of parents wanting it better for their kids. In their desire to make it better, they made it worse – they didn’t teach their kids how to learn on their own.
In her Atlantic Monthly article, How to Land Your Kid in Therapy, Lori Gottlieb describes in detail how it’s not these kids who need therapy, it’s their parents. She counsels the adult children of these parents who can’t understand why they aren’t happy because they “had everything.”
I also agree with Gottlieb that much of this can be attributed to our obsession with being happy. Our last few generations progressively place more importance on being happy. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a wonderful goal. What’s off is how we attempt to achieve it. Gottlieb says:
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.”
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?
Not only do we place a disproportionate amount of attention on happiness, we avoid situations that might be uncomfortable for ourselves and our kids.
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 getting in shape: it’s going to be uncomfortable at first. You are going to produce cellular injury. Yet that discomfort and injury will get you in shape. Many of us use trainers not only to make sure we are doing it right, but also make sure we don’t wuss out. Parents that protected you from discomfort trained you not to push through that initial pain.
Always making sure the kids are happy, buffered from discomfort, guided to make the right decision… is a lot of work, but for whose benefit? The parents get burnt out and frustrated, and the kids are deprived of a place to learn from their own decisions and mistakes. Think about it: wouldn’t you have rather screwed up more as a kid than as an adult?
Gottlieb quotes Jean Twenge, a co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University as saying, “we treat our kids like adults when they’re children, and we infantilize them when they’re 18 years old.” With this approach you are left little room to make mistakes or explore life.
Many of the young adults today are “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.” Because none of this is discussed you start thinking you are the problem – you messed up. You didn’t learn something that was taught to you.
NO! You are not responsible for causing it. Your parents, with their best intentions, attempted to help you when they “loved you too much.” Now that you are no longer a child living with them they feel the loss of what was missed. They usually can’t name it, but they know something is off. In keeping with their past, they look to you to emulate their discomfort.
“There’s a difference between being loved and being constantly monitored,” Dan Kindlon [child psychologist] 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. [emphasis added] 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.”
In defense of your parents and their parents, as a culture we have lost our community. Kindlon’s statement about having less community is the most important statement of the Atlantic article. Without community our parents didn’t have support, other than those who they hired. Without a community they didn’t have role models to guide them.
One of my old teachers and best friends grew up in traditional Hawaiian culture, where often the grandparents raised the kids. For my friend, it was an older aunt. That’s a brilliant approach. Grandparents have the time, the experience, the appropriate distance, and the patience, while the child’s parents are busy having babies, working, and learning to be parents.
I hear from my clients and men in our groups that they often don’t have time to just be with their kids. We explain to men that it’s about shifting the focus. Less on doing and more on being. When a dad slows down and really listens to his kids, they all get what they need. Every time the man does this, the kids change.
“It took me a long time to learn this,” says Eldon Renner, father to two young daughters, “but if I can stop in the middle of an issue with my kids and really listen, it gives me a chance to be the dad I really want to be.” Kids need the depth of attention that comes from a parent not doing things, but being with them. Listening to their day, hearing about their mistakes and successes is essentially telling them that who they are becoming is perfect.
First, realize you aren’t bad or broken, you just didn’t get to learn what you needed to learn. Second, know that “fixing” this is within YOUR power. YOU are the one responsible for fixing it.
To really turn this around, you will need help. I’m not talking therapy. You just need a place to learn what you didn’t get a chance to learn as a kid. You need the community that you or your parents didn’t have. The core of what was missing is the most powerful solution.
The deeper the community, the better. A social and work community can teach you a lot. But to learn the deeper intrapersonal skills your parents couldn’t teach, you need what I call a “micro-community,” where focus is on solely its members. It’s not a therapy group. It’s a men’s group for men or a women’s group for women.
These groups focus on each member growing in the way he or she wants to grow. Just having someone—let alone a group–focus on your growth is the antithesis of what often occurred in your family. In one of these groups, you get to experiment, mess up, lose it, and just be. Frequently a man joins one of our groups to help move through a particular issue only to discover after a few months that there was a wealth of experiences and skills he wasn’t exposed to as a child.
Having a place to fail, where there are no significant consequences, gives you a chance to get what you missed growing up. Making friends with failure is important for your personal success and ultimately your happiness. Jonathan Fields, author of The Uncertainty Book, wrote an excellent post on Why Failure Must Be On The Table. You can’t continue to avoid failure. Find or create one of these “micro-communities” as your incubator to grow your resilience.
Does any of this ring true for you? How are you addressing it?
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