A popular article from The Atlantic, “How To Land Your Kids In Therapy,” is making the rounds in social media, the press and friends. The byline is: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods. A therapist and mother reports.
The author also talks to some experts who agree with her that a parent’s insistence on believing their children are “great,” wanting them to participate in non-competitive sports where “everyone wins” and making their children’s happiness foremost in their minds and actions, are actually causing their children to be disillusioned, fragile and unhappy. It’s putting them in therapy, people!
In a casual reading, I should feel neutral on this article. I happen to believe in the importance of competitive sports and in my child’s ability to be happy even if they suck at football. I also believe that my child’s happiness and, more importantly, my child’s ability to understand what makes them happy, is my main job as a parent and happens to be unrelated to education, wealth and cultural success.
And I thought that I would until I examined it in a broader context.
The problem with this article is that the author could take every word and replace it with the “tough love” ideas from 20-30 years ago and reach the same conclusion. A conclusion that amounts to: Parents? You’re doing it wrong!
The pendulum had swung from toughening up our kids and good smacks on the bottom to time-outs to time-ins, and now it’s swinging the other way. And a new set of writers and experts are standing there, blowing.
Where are the articles on encouraging parents to spend time figuring out what works for their child’s personality and their personal family situation and then doing what works as well as a person could?
Honestly, any parent within the 50% bell curve of what is acceptable at any given moment of American culture (barring a time when discrimination and child labor was within that bell curve) are not going to hurt their children. Period. Nothing these parents can do will make their children turn out terrible or wonderful. Children are well-wired for resilience.
To the right of that 50% are the parents who are extraordinarily intuitive to what their children need: whether it’s coddling or consistency. They are better than the average parent at bringing out the strengths in their children and encouraging healthy coping methods for the challenges. All of the middle 50% will, at some point, do this. Most won’t be able to maintain it due to circumstance and human nature. In fact, perhaps there are no parents who are ALWAYS in that 25% (except for YOU, of course). And that’s okay because the top 25% parents still aren’t guaranteed no-therapy, successful, happy kids. Children are wily like that.
And the parents in the bottom 25% are probably not reading an article in The Atlantic that discusses how to keep their kids out of therapy. Or perhaps that’s unfair because some of them will seek help and support. And when faced with extraordinary crisis, most of the parents in the middle will find themselves making terrible parenting choices, even if briefly. They won’t stay, but they may visit. When assessing the collective parenthood, there are probably very few parents who are ALWAYS in the bottom 25% or the articles on these parents wouldn’t make it to CNN, be published as novels and made into best-selling movies.
The Atlantic article takes decent parenting and screams, Way to put your children in therapy!, which isn’t helping any parent to grow. It’s just more fodder for the current myth in American culture that the undisciplined, wild child would only behave if his parents stopped codling. Which sounds eerily similar to the myth decades ago that these undisciplined, wild children were rebelling against the tight fist of their parents.
I wish that parenting experts would spend more time admitting that most parents are doing well, most children will be okay and a little therapy never hurt anyone.
But then they’d be out of job.