Aha! Parenting Blog

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Lori Gottlieb in the Atlantic? Touched a nerve, but here's why she's wrong.

Lori Gottlieb’s article in the Atlantic has touched a nerve that was already raw from Amy Chua.  Her thesis?  Young adults have been over-coddled by parents, which has made them miserable. Her conclusion?  Stop catering to your child or he’ll never develop resilience.  Once again, the pendulum swings back to the harsh side, as we’re warned not to nurture our children too much.  This is news?  Our parents could have told us this, and often did.  That doesn’t mean it’s true.

As with every idea that takes hold virally, Gottlieb’s theory does have some truth in it. Yes, many of us do find it hard to separate from our children when they go off to college.  But she thinks there's something wrong with it!  Every parent who is close to her kids knows that such feelings are natural and normal.  After all, for most of human existence, children stayed in the same village as their parents.  If we’re close to our children, we mourn their moving into the world without us, just as we tear up when they start first grade.  That’s not a problem, as long as we pay attention and manage our own emotions so our children don’t have to carry them.

And yes, every parent in the world wants to protect her child from pain and disappointment.  So many of us do automatically rush to distract our child from his painful emotions.  Gottlieb gets it right that this is destructive to our kids.  But she's clueless about the cause of this phenomenon.  She equates it to attunement, to nurturing.  So she blames parents for being "too nurturing" to their children.  She completely misses the critical issue, the one that would actually help parents.

Let me explain. When we give our child the message that her frustration and disappointment are too much to face, our child learns that disappointment and sadness are intolerable. She then spends the rest of her life doing whatever is necessary to avoid feeling what she fears will be unbearable. Fending off disappointment will necessitate her doing things that end up being destructive to her – possibly including, for instance, avoiding all risks, insisting that she must have her way, or cheating to win.  Parents who act like the child’s “negative” emotions are to be avoided give the message that part of the child’s self is unacceptable.

The takeaway for kids is that they are not fully lovable.  Because she never learns to feel comfortable with her more challenging feelings, she never develops the high EQ (emotional intelligence) that will help her navigate the world with resilience.  In fact, she’s challenged to manage herself, and even to tolerate the frustrations of daily life.  She never learns that happiness is not derived from wish fulfillment and having one desire after another met, but can in fact be maintained in the face of disappointment.  She’s likely to spend her life pursuing one “thing” after another that she thinks will make her happy. 

Gottlieb pays lip service to this phenomenon, but she sees it as "over-nurturing" our child.  In fact, this has nothing to do with nurturing.  While we think we are protecting our child, we do this mostly to protect ourselves, because WE can’t bear the pain of our child’s disappointment. Again, our own lack of  emotional awareness and self-management is what burdens our children.  Forget the debate about how attuned we should be (the research says kids do better when they're nurtured more.)  Here's what parents need to know:

We need to regulate our own emotions to that we can tolerate our child's "negative" emotions.  That full acceptance is the unconditional love that every child needs to thrive. It creates  the emotional intelligence that is a prerequisite for stable internal happiness (which is otherwise known as resilience.) Stable internal happiness comes, most simply, from having one’s full range of self accepted and understood, including one’s angry, sad, disappointed self.

Gottlieb completely misinterprets this truth, and therefore her conclusions are abysmally wrong. Nurturing is not the problem. Closeness to our children is not the problem.  The problem is our discomfort with emotion: When we "ignore" our toddler's tantrums, minimize our preschooler's anger.  When, instead of sitting with our child's disappointment--including disappointment over the limits we set--we scurry to rescind our limit or move heaven and earth so he won't be disappointed.  How about an article on that?!

Three other points in Gottlieb’s article where she misses the boat.

1. Praise is not nurturing. No offense, but Lori Gottlieb doesn’t seem to know much about child development.  When she describes parents who are too attuned to their kids and thus mess them up, she says they tell their child she is “amazing” and every other word out of their mouth is “Good job!”  Of course that messes them up!  Kids who are given this kind of praise are notoriously insecure.  Where’s Gottlieb been while Alfie Kohn has been showing us the research that proves praise undermines self esteem? This doesn't mean support and attention hurt kids, as Gottlieb claims.  It means praise hurts kids.  This is not news.

2. As the Buddha said, life is suffering.  Gottlieb—like so many therapists—lays the credit or blame for the young adult’s happiness squarely on the shoulders of parents.  If parents are nurturing their kids and the kids are still plagued with a vague malaise, the parents must be doing something wrong.  Actually, as the Buddha pointed out thousands of years ago, life is hard.  Into every life some rain must fall.  Some lives require tremendous courage, just to get up in the morning. Even those of us whose lives are objectively “good” still live with our all too human mind, which is designed to keep us anxious (read: safe).  Happiness is nowhere in its job description.  If we want to be happy, we must take responsibility for our own happiness by learning to manage our minds with meditation, gratitude, serving a higher good, and other mindfulness practices. Those, research shows, actually do work to increase happiness levels but they have to be "practiced" daily.

3. Gottlieb ignores the effect of our culture.  Our social values squeeze our young people into a system in which material goods are valued over human connection, bankers are valued over teachers, busyness and work are valued while children are put in daycare at the age of three months.  Young people who have been raised to be in touch with their souls can be expected to find themselves unhappy in such a spiritually impoverished society. They want more out of life?  So do I.  Don't you?

So Gottlieb is completely correct that our parenting could use some tweaking.  But her conclusion—stop nurturing kids so much--is not only wrong; it plays into the hands of those who would excuse our culture's callousness toward children.  Instead, we need to take the next step forward in our evolving understanding of human development, and parent for emotional intelligence by regulating our own emotions.  That’s what our kids need. And it’s what our planet needs.

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