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Yes, Kids CAN Be Too Happy

When my kid has issues, I am the first one to admit it: It’s probably my fault. Whether it’s due to genetics (we’ve got anxiety and depression on both family trees) or parenting skills, it’s still my fault or my husband’s. And now a story in The Atlantic Monthly confirms it. The story — How to Land Your Kid in Therapy — details how parents who are too attentive and too worried about making their kids happy end up with kids who grow up to be unhappy adults. The best line in the story for me?

“Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?”

You see, I’ve had that discussion with a therapist already. One of the reasons Big Girl had such a difficult time adjusting to her sister was that, until Little Girl was born, I fixed all of Big Girl’s problems. She wasn’t allowed to be disappointed. If she was sad, I did everything in my power to make her happy. If she was snubbed I made it up to her. Everything had to be fair and equal. Everything had to be perfect. Here’s the problem with that, according to the story:

Based on what he sees in his practice, [Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA] 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.

The author of the story gives an example of a toddler who falls while running. Today’s parent will swoop in and pick up the child before she even lets out a whimper. However, by doing that, the author says, it prevents the child from feeling secure because they don’t get to sort out what happened and figure out they are okay on their own. Another great quote:

“…parents never learn this, because they’re too busy protecting their kid when she doesn’t need protection.”

Kids need to feel pain — physical and emotional — so they can develop what a quoted expert calls psychological immunity. The theory goes like this: When our bodies encounter germs, our immune system fights them, creating antibodies that instantly know how to handle it if it the same germ comes around. With psychological immunity, our bodies learn how to deal with unhappiness, anxiety, disappointment, failure, struggle, pain, and grief because we have done it before on our own. The important part here: ON OUR OWN.

Me? Well, I tried to fix everything for my kid. She was shy? I coddled and loved her even more. It was hard for her to learn something? I did it over and over again with her. (Instead of letting her fail and figure it out herself.) She was anxious? I put her on my body and taught her deep breathing — at times, pulling her on top of me when she called out, “Mommy, help me calm down! I can’t calm down!”) Someone canceled a playdate? I took her to the park or did something special with her like baking cookies.

The second part of the article was also of interest to me. It deals with excessive praise and failure. Parents who, according to the article, “exclaim ‘Great job!’ not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for ‘good tries,’ he never gets negative feedback on his performance.”

I’m guilty of this, too. I think a lot of parents, teachers, and coaches are, too. We build these kids up for no reason, don’t let them compete, don’t let them lose, and then they are surprised when they get to the real world where they lose, where they are not the best, and where they don’t have someone sitting there telling them how excellent they are. Makes perfect sense. How can kids ever live up to that hype?

Poor Big Girl. She lived a charmed life before Little Girl came. All praise, love, fun, and excitement. Then, once Little Girl came into the picture, it was all over. Big Girl didn’t have my undivided attention anymore. We had a new baby, and I was working more than I ever had since my husband was out of work. She didn’t have someone mitigating every negative feeling and situation. She didn’t have 24/7 praise. It’s no wonder she became a snarling, angry, pissed off child. She must have felt like we threw her into a deep pool without swimmies or a life vest: terrified, scared, and alone. And, in retrospect, maybe that’s why Little Girl is all sweetness and light. She took her own bumps. She made her own mistakes. She didn’t get swooped up when she bumped her head, so she shook it off and stopped crying quickly. (To this day I say that if Little Girl cries, I know there’s something really wrong with her.)

We learned our lesson soon after Little Girl was born. A therapist showed us the error of our ways, and we parent differently now. Our punishments aren’t time outs and losing a toy. No, now we take things away from Big Girl that she really wants. She actually feels pain and anger. This past weekend she missed a birthday party and a playdate because of her behavior. I guarantee she’s never going to do what she did again, but I also believe that by doing that — by making her spend an entire night alone in her room — I was being a really good parent.

The last part of the article, thank goodness, doesn’t apply to us. (We had to do some things right, right?) It’s about setting limits. We always did. So much so that people actually criticized us. Our set bedtimes were too draconian. Our insistence on politeness and consequences was “mean.” (That one came from my own mother.) Our stance that you do it because we said you do it wasn’t kind enough. And yet my kid respects adults and doesn’t sass us. She may be super-angry and growl, but she knows she’s not getting something just because she wants it, and if we say no, we mean no. We don’t give her choices related to what we’re doing, eating, or seeing. We set the rules. Case closed. And, according to the article, that is a good strategy since kids who get too many choices for dinner, for activities, for life end up as “handicapped royalty…too much choice makes people more likely to feel depressed and out of control.”

The article was a great reminder of everything I learned over the past three years. I am printing it out and will re-read it every time I feel like a mean, horrible person for being a parent instead of being a friend. How about you?

3 Responses to “Yes, Kids CAN Be Too Happy”

  1. LauraG says:

    Karen,
    Wonderful article with a remarkable list of reminders for, at least, for me, what it means to have a happy kid now and years later.
    Thank you.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I “just” read that article today and haven’t finished the last page, sadly enough. I do agree with the article and most of your blog post. However, I would like to challenge the fact that kids always need to be punished in order to learn the “rules of society” or “proper behavior” or whatever else one would prefer to call it.

    I’m not sure if you are familiar with Alfie Kohn’s “Unconditional Parenting” book and excerpts but I would encourage you to read it. Often, I feel the punishments are more for us to have “done something” rather then to have taught our kids anything besides the fact that we were mean to them. I do agree that we shouldn’t coddle children’s every move and make them their lives perfect, but as a faithful blog reader–I would encourage you to look into the ideas of “Unconditional Parenting.” As someone who agrees with your every written word, practically speaking, I think it would really appeal to you.

    Keep blogging. Peace.

  3. Karen,

    I agree so much with many of these blogs. You’re so in line with many of the things I’ve felt, lived and breathed with my three kids: Robert almost 13, Kelly 11 and Melanie 9. We always, always ALWAYS had bedtimes for all three children. I can’t tell you how many times people snickered at us while visiting family and I’d poke my husband at 7:30 time to get home because the toddlers are tired and will fall asleep on the way home and be up all darned night. Maybe because I sometimes suffer from insomnia, nothing keeps me from a good night sleep. Flash forward a decade and guess what? My kids go to bed, by themselves no questions asked, no extra glasses of water, no bs, no hassles and very rarely does anyone get up in the middle of the night. My 13 year old has been setting his own alarm at night, getting up by himself at 6:30 am, jumping in the shower all dressed and ready for breakfast at 7 am when I get out of bed and start my day. The girls get up on their own, shower and eat breakfast at 8. I can’t tell you how those other parent who snickered have massive problems with kids still climbing into bed at night, night terrors, teenagers who are on the computer till all hours of the night, and parents can’t sand blast them out of bed to save their life in the morning. Setting a strict bedtime limit was truly selfish and has formed a lifetime of good sleeping patterns for my kids.
    Glad to hear you parent the same way. Keep blogging the good stuff.

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