Can You Keep Your Kid from Therapy?

June 16, 2011 at 10:34 am Leave a comment

Lori Gottlieb has a piece in The Atlantic, the kind of article I read from start to finish before reading all the comments and then also reading the Motherlode post and comments too.  All while mumbling at the screen.

Gottlieb’s premise is that in our quest for perfect parenting, we are actually–irony of ironies–ruining our kids more than ever, sending them to therapy in droves and leaving them with lifetime dissatisfaction and helplessness.  She writes:

“Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child. It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned? What happens to those kids?”

The patients she sees are in therapy despite having loving, nurturing parents, so Gottlieb decides that the reason they need therapy must be those loving, nurturing parents, who kept their kids from experiencing any hint of discomfort in childhood, leaving them unable to deal with the pressures of growing up.

Now, I love a discussion of ridiculous helicopter parenting as much as the next blogger, but her piece fails to convince me that there is a real (and negative) trend at work.  Here’s why:

1) People choose to go into therapy for lots of reasons, but a lot of people see therapy as a positive step in taking care of oneself, like a dental cleaning for the mind.  So the fact that Gottlieb’s patients are in therapy does not make their parents failures.  I hope my kids choose therapy one day, if they feel it will help them.

2) We have become so rich that even young people can indulge in the quest for contentment.  In the past, young people just starting out wouldn’t have thought to ask if they were happy and to seek therapy if they felt mildly discontented.  There are trade-offs to our new, extended adolescence, and maybe this is one of them.

3) The Helicopter Parent has become such a caricature that it’s hard to tell how much of this parenting is really happening.  Yes, I’ve seen parents pick up toddlers the moment they fall, perhaps robbing them of the chance to experience pain and deal with it.  But those same kids are sent to school where they have little say over what they do all day for the next 15 or so years.  They will have plenty of heart-ache and disappointment to learn from even with the most hovering parents.  In fact, I think the world is made unnecessarily harsh for kids.  Maybe they won’t face the physical discomforts of generations past (remember burning the back of your thighs on the 108-degree pleather seats of your parents’ un-air-conditioned car?) but they face the same emotional hurdles of any child living in an adult world.

And some helicopter parents don’t spend enough time with their kids to even have much of an effect.  Gottlieb quotes a psychologist who illustrates this point:

“If you’ve got 20 minutes a day to spend with your kid,” Kindlon asked, “would you rather make your kid mad at you by arguing over cleaning up his room, or play a game of Boggle together? We don’t set limits, because we want our kids to like us at every moment, even though it’s better for them if sometimes they can’t stand us.”

If you are only parenting 20 minutes a day, then I would argue that a game of Boggle would be much more beneficial than arguing over room cleaning! (Notice the time is spent arguing, not even accomplishing the cleaning, so what do you have to lose?) If your time is really that limited, then spend it nurturing your relationship with your child and enjoying each other’s company.

The funny thing is, I would agree with probably 90% of what Gotttlieb writes.  Let your kids fail, let them have their own space.  Set limits and don’t let them dictate everything the family does.  But do all these things to make life easier and to enjoy family time, not to keep your kids out of therapy.

If the worst imaginable thing happens, and your kids land in therapy complaining that their parents loved and nurtured them too much. . .well, we should all be so lucky.

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