Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Life in Therapy

It sounds like a paradox, but it rings true. Lori Gottlieb argues in the Atlantic  that parents who obsess about making their children happy tend to make them unhappy. Link here.

Not so much because they obsess, but because they go about it the wrong way.

Subjecting their children to constant praise these parents coddle them to within an inch of their dignity. Is it any surprise that once they get out into the real world, they cannot deal with failure?

So, they end up in the offices of therapists like Lori Gottlieb. They tell her that they grew up under idyllic conditions, love their Mom and Dad, and yet, feel lost in the world of adult responsibilities. They lack any real sense of purpose and are generally anxious and depressed.

Thank you for high self-esteem.

Their parents had believed what the experts told them,  that high self-esteem would produce more confidence and more happiness.

Many of us have criticized this absurd attitude, to little real avail. How could it be possible to have ignored the fact that when you bloat your child’s sense of self-esteem with empty compliments, when you shield him from all bad feelings, and when you fail to set high goals for his achievement... you are going to make him into a self-involved, self-absorbed narcissist.

In reality, high self-esteem means being filled with feelings of specialness to the point that a child becomes insufferable and barely functional.

I differ slightly from Gottlieb, but only to the extent that I am not surprised to learn that these children grow up lost and repair to therapy to help them sort out their feelings.

They were brought up by parent-therapists, by parents who have abrogated their responsibility as parents to the supposedly superior wisdom of so-called experts.

And they were brought by parent-therapists who do not even understand what happiness is. In the world that therapy has wrought happiness means that you feel equally cheerful, whether you do well or poorly.?

Of course, these children end up in therapy. It’s what they know. It’s familiar. They’ve been there before. They grew up in it and know how to do it.

In no other human interaction can the deformed social skills that they learned from their parent-therapists be valuable and validated.

It starts in preschool. One preschool teacher, called Jane, explained how self-esteemism had corrupted her own job.

Gottlieb described the problems that Jane faced: “If, for instance, a couple of kids are doing something they’re not supposed to—name-calling, climbing on a table, throwing sand—her instinct would be to say ‘Hey, knock it off, you two!’ But, she says, she’d be fired for saying that, because you have to go talk with the kids, find out what they were feeling, explain what else they could do with that feeling other than call somebody a ‘poopy face’ or put sand in somebody’s hair, and then help them mutually come up with a solution.”

Doesn’t this sound like therapy? Don’t discipline the children... talk with them, find out what they’re feeling, offer some other ways of dealing with the feeling.

The prevalence of this form of child rearing explains why people reacted so negatively to the Tiger Mom.

The Tiger Mom knew that children needed order and discipline and needed to learn how to persevere in the face of difficult challenges. As psychologist Jean Twenge declares, the Tiger Mom knew that true happiness lay in earned achievement.

If the Tiger Mom is right an awful lot of parent-therapists are preparing children to be great therapy patients, but not to be much more.

Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz makes the same point to Gottlieb. In his words: “Research shows that people get more satisfaction from working hard at one thing, and that those who always need to have choices and keep their options open get left behind.... I’m not saying don’t let your kid try out various interests or activities. I’m saying give them choices, but within reason. Most parents tell kids, ‘You can do anything you want, you can quit any time, you can try this other thing if you’re not 100 percent satisfied with the other.’ It’s no wonder they live their lives that way as adults, too.”

As a pleasant sidelight to these debates, we are happy to note that Tiger Cub Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld was chosen to be the valedictorian at her high school graduation. Link here. We all congratulate Sophia on her great achievement.

When American parents rose up en masse  to denounce Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, for forcing them to submit to Confucian discipline, they predicted that her children would be socially dysfunctional and downright miserable. I heard one talk show host whine about how her children would not know how to have fun.

It was vapid then. It’s even more vapid now.

You will be happy to know that Sophia was chosen to be the valedictorian by a vote of her classmates. .

How many of those children, as they now step forth into the world of young adulthood, are saying that they wish that they too had had a Tiger Mom.


The Ghost said...

we shield kids from the rope climb in school and when they strike out into the real world they find it is nothing but a bunch of rope climbs ... is it any wonder so many fail ...

Anonymous said...

I would love to marry a woman like Amy Chua. A realistic, no nonsense type of lady.