Warning: Don’t raise kids that like you too much

| June 15, 2011 | 22 Replies

Guess how we are screwing up our kids now? At The Atlantic, therapist Lori Gottlieb writes that many parents are being too nice, too attentive and too encouraging to their children and it’s screwing up the kids.

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?

Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA who came to speak at my clinic, says the answer may be yes. Based on what he sees in his practice, Bohn believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.

Child psychologist Dan Kindlon describes this as our “discomfort with discomfort.” He compares childhood emotional health to the immune system: “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack.” Psychologist Wendy Mogel describes these fragile children as teacups, because they easily crack and crumble in the real world–because that is the way they were raised by their over-eager and over-protective parents. Kindlen suggest that long-working hours of parents exacerbate the problem, because the parents don’t want to “ruin” their kids by being hard on them during the limited time they get to spend with their kids.

What about the “need” for self-esteem?

Image by KGTOG at Dreamstime.com (with permission)

According to [psychologist Jean Twenge], indicators of self-esteem have risen consistently since the 1980s among middle-school, high-school, and college students. But, she says, what starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself—a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism. In fact, rates of narcissism among college students have increased right along with self-esteem.

Check out the entire well-written and thoughtful article. As you might suspect, I am highly sympathetic with many of these findings/arguments. Reading them, I am reminded of my favorite critic of helicopter parenting: Lenore Skenazy. And see here.

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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (22)

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  1. Jim Razinha says:

    I had a disagreeing response crafted in my head, then showed this to the person in the house who doesn't think generalities from psycho-anything aren't mostly BS. She informed me that she agrees with pretty much most of it. Recognizing my howling error (disagreement, not the consultation), I'm sharing her concurrence, with her observation that as wealth increases, this behavior is more common. I still think the psychiatrist's sample (I inferred "treatment" from "practice" and further inferred "problems" from any required treatment) is skewed and his conclusions flawed – but don't tell my wife – she didn't buy my line of reasoning.

  2. Effectively, teenagers today are very high on themselves; their parents constantly praise them, protect them from criticism. They will take their side when confronted. "My son (daughter) cannot have done that. I trust him (her)." I was a high school teacher for 33 years and I can tell you that teenagers are lying machines. I have seen this phenomenon gradually appearing and lately becoming common.

  3. Jim Razinha says:

    Good question. I'll ask both pairs.

    I admit Andrea interacts with parents a lot more than I do. I do trust her judgment on these things. Internally, I don't understand it, but as she's rarely wrong, the mounting evidence is overwhelmingly in her favor. I just have a hard time with psychoanalysis – to me, it's like feng shui: no real rules, and almost all opinion. Mountains of data mean nothing if in the end, predictions are just guesses.

  4. Erika Price says:

    Jim: Barry Schwarz is a social psychologist by training. The other researchers cited here are psychologists and clinicians- not psychoanalysts a la Freud or something like that. There are many bad therapists in existence, but the people who produce findings such as these are researchers and scientists by training and have little (or likely, nothing) to do with head-shrinking. What they are describing are social and cultural changes and observed empirical trends. So it's attempting, at the very least, to tackle these questions in an empirical and methodologically naturalistic way; it ain't feng shui. Ok, I'll ditch the soapbox now.

    Jim also makes the very important point that this is a problem in only a small subset of American children. One hears and reads many tear-downs of helicopter parenting and its attendant harms in online magazines and on NPR and NYT and the like, but it's an upper-middle-class problem that doesn't trickle down to the majority of kids. To the kids who live in single-parent homes, or in poverty, or in foster care, or with parents who work full time and are spread too thin, or with parents who are wantonly neglectful or physically abusive, some overbearing upper-class folks would be a dream come true. In a huge swathe of households, corporal punishment and verbal abuse are still major problems.

    That said: I think that for the population being studied, this research is spot-on! Kids are not learning how to emotionally weather difficult times; in the worst cases, they are learning that negative feelings are somehow taboo. We are creating a cohort of insecure, emotionally repressed, weak-willed kids, at a time when kids are already more financially dependent upon their folks than ever. Childhood keeps telescoping outward, it seems, and emotional and psychological maturity keeps getting pushed back and away.

    I think the first step is for parents, teachers, and children alike to become comfortable with the negative aspects of life. Children should be taught, I think, that the world is an uncontrollable place where many upsetting things happen, and where many horrible emotions will be felt. Parents need to realize this is true, even for their precious own babies.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Erika: When I suggested this problem is widespread, I should have been more careful to mention that my experience tends to be in the upper-middle class sweet-spot that you describe. I've noticed it in dozens of parents who proclaim that they demand diversity for their kids, yet when it comes time to choose a school for their kids, they vote with their feet to the private schools that cost $20,000 per year, lest their child be damaged, or at least not groomed to his/her full potential. First hand, I've heard the principal of a fancy school tell me that I need to send my daughter to his school because "You only get one chance to raise your child right." If you hang around many of the parents in this economic level, you'll see that they experience great self-pride in their trophy children. You'll hear about the many "enriching" activities and camps and you'll hear about the school mates who have been accepted at prestigious schools. You'll hear it and hear it and hear it. Yet, the research that I find convincing tells you that children who are the ages of my daughters 11 and 12 need extended periods of play, perhaps more than anything else.

      I don't buy that children of this age "need" 3 or 4 hours of homework after going to school for 8 hours. They don't need to be educated like adults (nor should most adults). I am proud to say that one of my daughters (perhaps both someday) is attending an imperfect but promising public arts school, where she is learning a hell of a lot about the real world and beyond.

      If I'm still around in 20 years, I'll write a note describing how it all went, given that I'm actively resisting a trend I sense in many of my peers. Maybe I'll be regretting that I didn't groom my kids to make it into Harvard.

      I'll add this too: I know many people who are extremely smart who went to college. I know a whole lot a unimpressive people who went to college, even "good" colleges. And I know quite a few people I would describe as brilliant who never graduated from any sort of college.

      I thought that be mentioning these things, it might give some insight into why I wrote this post.

  5. Jim Razinha says:

    I think it was homework 19 years ago that first planted the seeds for homeschooling. When my oldest had homework…in kindergarten…I flipped. Of course, the school didn't understand why. A too-long year later and we were out. Biggest mistake was trying to reinsert him back into the system (and it is a system) when we moved to California a year and a half after pulling him out of NYC public school. Gatto's seven lessons hits it right on the head about the goal of homework.

    Trained social psychologist? Well…that means little to me, but then psychology is one of the three subjects my wife and I still have disagreements over after 25 years of marriage; the others being movies (and the tie in should be obvious…she sees the psychology of something as vapid as Inception…heard that movie called "clever" three times last night and got nudged when I considered weighing in on the conversation) and {fringe} medical trends{/quackery} such as acupuncture – editorial comments mine alone of course. You might guess as to how I fare in any of the "arguments" – I apparently don't know what I'm talking about.

    I will probably always view psychology as a "quantum mechanics"-like science; can't know anything for sure. The difference though, is that at least the predictions of quantum physics can be made, measured and validated, even if the elements can't. Can anyone (other than my wife) predict with any accuracy my behavior? Possibly in a standard social setting. But can anyone predict what I'm thinking? Worse, still, is when someone tries to tell me why I'm thinking a certain something. Horse hockey or feng shui. I think it's this…attitude?…that is why I had a hypnotist tell me I could not be hypnotized (he said it was because my eyes didn't roll back far enough, but I think he was on to me.)

    Anyway, son #2 (he's 21) has been a lifeguard/pool manager for a couple of summers and says he sees the behavior noted in the original post a lot.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Here's another difference. One doesn't NEED to weigh in on quantum mechanics in one's everyday life. When it comes to psychology, though, one is forced to make decisions within that "field" regarding one's self, one's peers and one's children. Psychology seems to offer lots of good advice (mixed with the vague and unproven claims–all you need to do is sort it out!). One wants to have "psychologically" healthy children. Shouldn't one try to apply psychology when raising one's children? I think so, but I agree with your misgivings about much of what the field offers, Jim.

      There one of the things that I thought sounded like good applicable bits of advice that seemed to have some scientific backing: Carol Dweck's advice that we avoid telling out children that they are "smart" and, rather, praise their hard work (only when they work hard). This was not an obvious thing to me, but Dweck convinced me. I've since told my kids that I've been applying this rule (once I even confessed, "Even though you ARE smart").

  6. Jim Razinha says:

    I should have added that despite my obstinance on the subject, I do recognize that my dismissal has no bearing on its validity.

    And that I see psychologists in the same vein as ministers: both probably really believe on their product, but can never know for sure. For me, the skepticism of the former came after the skepticism of the latter, but it seems a natural progression…to me.

  7. Nowadays, the prevailing approach in teenagers is: "It's easier to say sorry than to ask for permission."

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's more advice offered by a psychologist that I have consciously applied as a parent, offered by Mary Pipher. http://dangerousintersection.org/2007/02/21/the-e

  9. Just an observation about the credibility of psychology, from perhaps an unanticipated perspective. I write fiction. If psychology was not grounded on substantive, observable causal chains, I couldn't do what I do. Good characters make good story because readers recognize real humanity in them—and how could that be done if the human psyche can't be probed and understood and, to a large degree, behavior based thereon predicted?

    But it's human nature to resist being categorized, so rejection of the conclusions of psychologists is…perfectly predictable.

  10. Tim Hogan says:

    I follow Aristotle on happiness; "activity in accordance with well defined virtue."

    I support my children at being happy. I don't see any fault in supporting my children's happiness as it supports their living their lives in accordance with well defined virtues.

    My wife and I attempt to demonstrate the virtues we wish the kids to emulate in life. We find others in our lives who also demonstrate those virtues or seek out examples. When we fail, we apologize, re-make our agreements with the kids and move on. We have taught the kids to do the same but, still emphacize accountablility and responsibility as twin graces of being human. We gave the kids their own cats to teach them.

    The kids are still are hurt by others meaness, upset over friends' apparent or real indifference, and lie like Fibber McGee.

    In fact, when I bust the kids in a lie, it's Fibber McBen of Fibber McBella (or McBear…a nickname). I often have my kids decide their sibling's punishments. Ben had to once tell Bella something nice when he offended Belldom. Ben said he was lucky to have a sister like Bella, that he loved her and was sorry for having upset her because that's not how he wanted Bella to be. My kids also show a love and affection for each other which can make me cry (when they are not fighting!).

    My kids have good friends who are like them. I have my kids friends over for dinner often and sometimes their parents too. I often attempt to demonstrate to my tweener daughter that she cannot die from embarassment by singing her song we made up for her when she was "little" and still thought daddy had superpowers of healing by a kiss.

    Among us, the neighbors, the schools, the church and all our friends, we'll keep on supporting our kids' happiness. So far, they seem to be doing OK. I don't see fault in parents supporting kids' happiness.

  11. Jim Razinha says:

    Mark, hmmm. My wife would totally agree with you. It'll take me longer (but I'm sure I'll come around.) Two writers that I enjoy have PhDs in psychology (Jerry Pournelle and Michael Shermer), so there may be something to it.

    I'll submit that psychology of the masses can make better predictions than psychology of the individual. But I'd probably be wrong.

    Erich, magnificent point of the praising the act not the person. I know I grew up with "good boy", "bad boy" – like a dog – but (again, thanks to my wife…) I learned very early as a parent that there is no such thing as a bad child. There is bad behavior, but taking time to understand what the child was thinking and how to address that in an age appropriate way… Holy cow! I'm talking psychology! Or channeling 25 years of marriage to an extremely well-read amateur psychologist.

    I agree that there are better ways to raise children than others that do involve a psychology of understanding. I recognize that I grew up "tromping all day in the woods", or as Jeff Foxworthy recalled – swinging so hard on the swingset that the legs lifted off the ground…and won't allow my children to go tromping. Home educating does give us the opportunity to provide them with adventures, and we help them work through learning how group dynamics operate – but they have to develop those skills on their own. Unlike my childhood, we talk to our kids…as people.

    Eldest son (24) texted me today: "After reading [Erich's] article, and thinking on the subject for a day…I'm in general agreement with what the article states. In almost all instances where I've had to interact with the teenage demographic, the spectrum is extreme in either direction. There's almost no one I've encountered that is well balanced."

    then (four hours later) … "But I wouldn't go so far as to say it's 'being too nice' either. I would say sheltering is the real culprit."

    I haven't had my 14- and 12-year olds read and comment yet.

  12. Jim,

    It only follows that human behavior can be mapped. We have a brain that supports a mind capable of mapping the world around us. We can make it all make sense not only to ourselves, but to each other. By extension, that means we are all similarly equipped and the internal architecture of that cognitive mechanism is of sufficient order that it can be understood in the same way that external reality can be.

    Obviously, that is a tremendous simplification, but I think valid. The variations of behavior that go to what we call "individuality" are both not so very great and at the same time the result of complex interactions that go by too fast to accurately trace in any given moment. But over time, a set of patterns build up that make of us each a quantitatively definable entity.

    But individual psychology is different from social psychology because we're dealing with a different set theory.

    Yes, there are quacks out there selling all kinds of prognosticative nonsense under the guise of Self Help, empowerment training, and the several motivational programs to get kids to obey. But it's no different, really, than quack scientists of any stripe—just because there's some idiot trying to sell you on Intelligent Design doesn't mean no one knows anything concrete about evolutionary biology.

  13. Jim Razinha says:

    I think it still comes down to best guesses, unlike physics; convergence of data..but with a margin of error large enough to be statistically significant. "Most of the population should react this certain way to this group of stimuli…but we really can't be sure." And also unlike something like physics, I think the "equations" are generally inaccessible to the common person, who on average can't use them.

    I see the findings that prompted this thread to something like coffee is bad for you…or coffee is good for you, depending on the study; pronouncements based on limited sampling and limited study that create a flurry of misquotes, misunderstandings…and no apparent critical assessment (such as noting the sample size/make up) … I admit that my first thought when I read this was that the wrong wing media will pounce and blow it totally out of proportion, as is their wont. I hope that doesn't happen.

  14. Erika Price says:

    What a great comment thread. As mentioned above, the prevailing understanding in education (and development psychology), is now that children should be praised for deeds rather than attributes. The reason being, rather obviously, that behaviors can be changed by-the-minute, ensuring that a child can be praised for a specific act without getting a big head, and similarly criticized for a mistake without feeling shamed.

    This wasn't in the zeitgeist even twenty years ago. Kids were labeled 'talented' or 'smart' and treated as brilliant by parents and teachers, often to the peril of the kids' effort and perseverance. If you are labeled as "smart", it's easy to stop worrying about your tangible academic progress and discrete behaviors, because hey who cares, you know deep down you have some inherent quality that (supposedly) guarantees you success. I'm part of the generation that experienced this sort-and-label educational process, and I'll anecdotally attest that it produced a lot of detached, smart slackers (among which I would count myself).

    I think we are seeing this same trend writ large. Now instead of praising kids for being 'smart', we are giving them high high high self-esteem and turning them into lazy little narcissists.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Erika: Carol Dweck assembled some studies strongly suggesting that those kids labeled "smart," were hesitant to force into new untried waters. They didn't want to risk their "smart" label by trying new things that might not give immediate payback in compliments. The kids who were praised as "hard workers" were much more likely to branch out and try new things.

      Your comment intrigues me. I suspect (from things we've discussed off-line, regarding your studies) that you are now quite driven, internally rather than by what you think society expects of you. Can you extrapolate from your own experiences and suggest what might cause a complacent child/young-adult to catch fire intellectually or in any other way?

  15. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Since my teen years, I have enjoyed a healthy curiosity where psychology is concerned. as a teen living in a rural area, I applied the techniques of B.F. Skinner to training dogs and cats. Someone once said that my dogs were better behaved than most people children.

    In college, I took psychology courses as electives ( many thought this an odd choice for an engineering student), and even considered minoring in the subject. One of my general psychology courses spent a few weeks on developmental psychology, which proved exceptionally useful when I became a parent.

    One major mistake made by parents is trying to be the child's bet friend. Parents must be role models and authority figures to their children. By trying to be friends with their children, parents lose the respect of their children.

    My younger son, when he was four of five years old, got upset with me when I told him I would not be buying an expensive toy he wanted. He told me he hated me and I was not his friend anymore. My answer to him was "Yeah… Maybe so, but I will always be your dad."

    Parenting is difficult, because you have to be able to gradually give children responsibilities as they become capable of handling them, and you also have to give them your trust as they develop trustworthiness.

    My older son has presented a different challenge. He has late onset autism. He developed normally until he was two years old, then rapidly regressed losing his ability to speak in the process. The underlying cause in his cases appears to be autoimmune related, and it is progressive. It turns out that the most effective way of training autistic children is through the same basic technique used to train dogs and cats: adaptive behavioral modification.

  16. Erika Price says:

    Erich: I'm not sure what the impetus is for 'smart slackers', but Ive known dozens of bright kids who, like me, became somehow skeptical of the grade-game and pursued other interests on the side instead. I think intellectual curiosity is an inborn trait, and those with it simply need to find a satisfying avenue. If a praise-oriented or labelling/tracking system prevents school from being such an avenue, the kids find something extracurricular to feed their fires (which I did, recall I started blogging here in highschool, and engaged in other similar projects) or see it sadly snuffed out.

    To sum: I think the goal of parents and teachers is to cultivate and enable kids' intellectual skills, and make sure not to dampen them with excessive praise or understimulation. Once it's gone, it might be gone for good- or at least a long while.

  17. Niklaus Prirsig says:

    Erika,

    In many school systems, particularly public systems which are being starved for funding, smart kids often lack the resources to pursue their own interests. Libraries may be very outdated, internet access may be non existent, and the "designed to fail" requirements of NCLB force the schools to create a sense of futility in the students instead of encouraging independent thinking.

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