Kids Need Unhappiness, Too

The last couple of weeks, when Roy was sick, I reminded myself that unhappiness is part of the deal. In the end, perhaps we’re better for weathering life’s difficulties. It makes sense, then, that unhappiness might be good for kids, too. This is exactly what therapist/mom Lori Gottlieb asserts in the July/August issue of The Atlantic.

In her article titled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” Gottlieb talks about a new breed of patient she noticed turning up on her therapist’s couch—young adults with supportive upbringings suffering from anxiety, depression and a general sense of emptiness. At first she was stumped.

“They truly did seem to have caring and loving parents, parents who gave them the freedom to “find themselves” and the encouragement to do anything they wanted in life. Parents who had driven carpools, and helped with homework each night, and intervened when there was a bully at school or a birthday invitation not received, and had gotten them tutors when they struggled in math, and music lessons when they expressed an interest in guitar (but let them quit when they lost that interest), and talked through their feelings when they broke the rules, instead of punishing them (“logical consequences” always stood in for punishment).”

Gottlieb asserts that there may be such a thing as too much support. Of course we all want our kids to be happy. But when we adults fixate on constant and total happiness as a be-all, end-all goal—for us and for our children—it could end up backfiring. “Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?” she muses.

What struck me as a parent to a toddler was how early this sanitizing can start. One example given was rushing to your child when he falls, rather than giving him a chance to assess the situation for himself. Letting him learn he can get through that little swell of unpleasantness solo is the building block for dealing with bigger difficulties, disappointments, discomforts and frustrations later in life.

We’ve instinctively already done this with Roy. When he falls, we wait. Usually, after a little, “Ophf!” he’s off and running again. If he does cry, we look for blood. I just hope we can continue to make choices that foster his independence as he grows, because to tell the truth, it really is hard to see my little boy hurt. A skinned knee is one thing. How might I deal with playground bullies, the disappointment of getting picked last or that inevitable broken heart? It chokes me up a little just imagining it.

What do you think? Can you, as a parent, resist the urge to make everything better? Do you want to?

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  1. by Julia

    On June 16, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    That is a great article. I am definitely guilty of always rushing to make everything better for my daughter. Being a single mom I guess I feel like I have to make up for her father’s lack of involvement somehow, but it is good to be reminded that OVER-involvement will cause her to suffer in the long run, too. It’s always about finding a middle ground, I guess.

  2. by Eileen

    On June 18, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Very interesting perspective. I agree that kids have to learn to stand on their own. I also agree that we have let the pendulum swing too far in the ‘other’ direction…. maybe I’m being defensive but I feel like life is already hard enough, so many things we can’t shield them from, that giving them all the love and support (not spoiling) we can, just so they know they always have someone in their corner is a very ‘parental’ thing to do. It’s a line that needs to be walked and always depends on what else is going, age, etc. My 2 cents; from a mom with 3 grown kids that have flown off to other parts of the world and made it on their own….with the support and love of their parents : )

  3. by Berit Thorkelson

    On June 20, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Thanks for adding to the conversation. Julia, I imagine it’s amazingly hard to resist the urge when you’re doing it all. Man. And Eileen, what you’re saying makes sense. Though I’m guessing, based on the self-sufficiency and general excellence of your children, that you gave them a decent amount of well-supported learning space?

  4. by barbara kelley

    On June 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Lori Gottleib’s latest piece in the Atlantic provides a sensible wake-up call for uber-parents who do too much for their children, all in the interests of making them “happy” and protecting them from failure. In our new book, “Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career — and Life — That’s Right for you” my daughter/co-author and I focus on the results of that kind of over-parenting on today’s women: analysis paralysis, second-guessing and grass-is greener syndrome. It’s a generational malise, this pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and overwhelm, the feeling that no matter what they choose in terms of their life path, it is never enough.
    Of course, it’s not just well-meaning parents that are to blame: It’s societal norms and workplace cultures, too, that have not yet caught up to the new reality that women now make up over half of the workplace. More here:

  5. by katie

    On June 21, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    If that Eileen is the Eileen I happen to know, the answer to that question is yes. I’m so glad that my mom and dad didn’t do EVERYthing for me. When i would come to them with a problem, they would give me great advice, but then tell me it’s time for me to stick up for yourself, or that this is what life is all about. There were times I wanted them to do it, but it’s made me quite self-sufficient. And I’ve noticed my peers asking me how to handle difficult situations, so…