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Parenting books today recognize two trends in our culture that they warn can lead to fatal problems in adolescence. The first is that children are too spoiled, which leads to things not mattering much to them. The second is that they are pushed too hard, which can lead to their thinking they don’t matter much.
Is it really possible that our children’s problems would stem from giving them too much or pushing them too hard?
And anyway, how are parents supposed to walk the tightrope between happy abundance and worrisome excess? I mean, what is too much? A Nintendo DS but not also a Wii? A laptop and a desktop in the house but not in the car? Expectations for good grades but not to score that final goal on the soccer field? What does “too much” mean, exactly?
The real problem parents have today is that our children, despite everything we give them and everything we expect from them, sometimes act unhappy and unmotivated. This creates a tremendous amount of suffering for parents. It is that suffering that can poison family life.
Here is how it starts to happen:
It’s not his birthday, but Johnnie finally gets his new, expensive toy. His parents are thrilled to buy it for him, and he is thrilled to get it. The whole family is happy—for a day. Because the next day, Johnnie realizes that he wants another piece of software to go with the toy. So he does what any communicative, ambitious child would do who was raised to be open with his parents; he asks for it.
The new software he wants is expensive. They just paid a fortune for the toy! So they say: “We just spent $10,000 on you, Johnnie. Isn’t that enough?”
Because Johnnie is ambitious, however, he is going to work a little harder to get what he wants. He presses. “But Mom, I need it.” This is where I really feel sorry for all mothers or fathers or caregivers whose children are privileged. All that money bought them exactly one day — if that long — of seeming contentment before Johnnie would become unhappy and start to feel deprived again.
There are tens of thousands of such unfair scenarios that play themselves out every day in which children, despite the huge amounts of time and money and attention that their parents have bestowed upon them, do not want to appreciate what they have at home, do not want to perform their best at school or on the field, and worst of all, do not want to be consistently happy.
Some parents, particularly if they did not get a lot of the right emotional attention or material goods in their own childhood, get extremely frustrated and disappointed in today’s children, for whom they have worked and sacrificed too much to make a better life.
This frustration and disappointment, if it shows too much, contributes to children feeling worthless, unworthy, disappointing and rotten. Even though it is true that they are, they can’t handle the truth, and they shouldn’t have to. Children have small hands, small feet, small emotional centers: they can’t absorb too much intensity – it usually just makes them fall apart inside or out.
While some children are more resilient when they sense their parents are feeling negative, others fall apart into tantrums or anxiety, phobias and depression. This is especially true if the parents are not comfortable being negative. Some parents are so uncomfortable being negative, in fact, they don’t even like to ask their child to wipe their nose.
Unfortunately, negativity has to go somewhere. Eventually, a parent who does not like being unpleasant will start to feel disgusted. Of course, children believe the parent is disgusted because of them. This is why spoiled children often cry when they can’t get something. They are not crying because they can’t get what they want; they are crying because they are so disgusted with themselves that they lose their dignity.
It is feelings of worthlessness that ultimately lead children and adolescents to lose interest in their things, as well. They simply do not derive enough pleasure from them. It is also feelings of worthlessness that can lead them to lose interest in achieving things – it’s might be too stressful. In the worst-case scenarios, material things and wholesome activities just become painful reminders of the stress of their parents' frustration and disappointment, and of their own perceived worthlessness.
Parents express their frustration and disappointment by yelling, hounding or lecturing too urgently when they want their children to feel happier or act more appreciative and motivated. Others may use the silent treatment although their faces register disgust as does their emotional distancing. The way these feelings ultimately come out is not pretty.
I encourage all parents to come to terms with and really examine and talk about how disappointing and frustrating their children can be. We have to be open and honest about these feeling because they are like salt: a little makes a meal complete, but too much can lead to heart failure.
Children really do need help being more grateful and less pushy and whiny. They really do need to work at being their best. This is why we have to use our feelings of frustration and disappointment to guide us. When a parent is not too overcome by disappointment and frustration, their lessons can be received.
So please, don’t stop giving your children anything. Only 25 years ago, child psychologists recommended we provide our children with all the possible benefits, including a myriad of stimulating activities and materials so that they will grow up well-rounded and believing that life has everything to offer.
It was also believed that if you push your children hard enough, they will learn that they can do anything if they try. Fostering competition, a cornerstone of our democracy, was supposed to be a good thing. Expect the world from them, believe in them and foster their talents with all your heart and soul.
Tell your children how you are feeling when they need an attitude adjustment. But mostly, embrace that your friendship is solid enough that they are real with you: real whiny, real demanding, and really, truly tired and unmotivated sometimes.
In normal development, where there has been no trauma, no poverty and no extreme deprivation, maturity and strength of character is not formed in the brain until the age of 23. That’s any day now.
ADVICE TO PARENTS ON "LOSING IT"
SEX EDUCATION FOR OUR BABIES
LEARNING FROM THE REPORT CARD
WHEN REWARD SYSTEMS WORK FOR HOMEWORK HASSLES, AND WHEN THEY DON'T.
THE FAMILY DINNER TABLE IS OVERRATED
INJECTIONS AND IMMUNIZATIONS: DRAMA NOT TRAUMA
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