We all want our kids to be happy. That’s the goal of good parenting, right? Sure, success is nice. We like seeing our kids achieve. But ultimately love, money, and winning first place at the county fair are all stepping stones to the big prize: happiness. We want to raise happy kids who grow to be happy adults.
Maybe we’re doing it wrong.
We’ve already covered the ways happiness may not be worth pursuing. We recently took a look at what else matters to a fulfilling life. Now a major article in the Atlantic says parents may be taking the wrong approach entirely with our kids. Bolstering their self esteem, enriching their lives with extra-curricular activities and carefully nurturing them every moment may not only be unnecessary, as Bryan Caplan says.
It might well be making them miserable.
Not right away. We’re pretty good at making our kids happy in the moment. But therapists like Lori Gottlieb, who authored this article, are seeing more and more well-loved, outwardly successful young people walk into their offices complaining of feel lost, depressed and anxious as adults. The problem isn’t that their parents didn’t love them enough. It’s that they were too much taken care of.
I’m not even talking about the wunderkind math geniuses who wind up living in their mother’s basements because they can’t hold down jobs. These are people with decent careers, meaningful relationships, good homes and a constant itching sense that something is missing. That they’re just, as one woman put it, less amazing than their parents thought they were.
Lori believes our touchy-feely parenting style is to blame for this young adult malaise. Kids aren’t being given the opportunity to develop resilience, self-reliance and problem-solving skills. She points out that while self-esteem has been steadily increasing among young adults since the early 80s, rates of anxiety and depression have increased right along with it.
Especially problematic, as she sees it, are all the choices we give our kids. Kids actually feel less anxious and more secure when they have fewer choices. She writes:
We can expose our kids to art, but we can’t teach them creativity. We can try to protect them from nasty classmates and bad grades and all kinds of rejection and their own limitations, but eventually they will bump up against these things anyway. In fact, by trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood, we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up. Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do—and some letting go.
It would be easy to read this article and see it as a call to become a different kind of parent. More strict, less wishy-washy. Offer fewer choices, demand more from your kids. Encourage competition rather than quelling it.
But I’m getting a different message, which is just to do less parenting. Worry less about how your every move is crafting your child’s future self and more about enjoying the days as they unfold. Maybe in 20 years your kids will be complaining to their therapists that you never loved them enough. Maybe they’ll be upset that you loved them too perfectly and didn’t let them fall down and scrape their knees. Maybe that late 20s malaise has nothing to do with parenting style after all.
I can’t know, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. Every once in awhile I’ll throw a dollar in the therapy jar, because I’m sure I’m making some mistakes along the way. We all are.
Photo: Dawn Huczek