Parenting books today recognize two trends in our culture which 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.
In a way, this seems crazy to me. Is it possible that our children’s problems would stem from giving them too much or pushing them too hard?
In fact, when I studied child psychology twenty-five years ago, the opposite was true. At that time we were told to 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.
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 WI? 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?
I think parents should stop worrying about spoiling and over-directing their children as quickly as possible. It is very good to want the very best, and to want everything for your child. It is excellent to have high expectations for them.
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 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, ambitions 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 ten thousand dollars on you, Johnnie, isn’t that enough?”
Because Johnny is ambitious, however, he is going to work a little harder to get what he wants. He presses. “But Moooom, I need it.” This is where I really feel sorry for all mothers or fathers or care-givers whose children are privileged. All that money bought them exactly ONE DAY - if that long - of seeming contentment before Johnny would become unhappy and start to feel deprived again.
There are tens of thousands of such unfair scenario’s that play themselves out every day in which children, despite the huge amounts of time and money and attention that their parents have extended to them, don’t want to appreciate what they have at home, perform their best at school or on the field, and most of all, be 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 to much to make a better life. Children of these parents, many of them, pick up on those intense feelings and unfortunately, they start to feel like they are worthless, unworthy, disappointing, rotten kids. Even though it is true that they are, they can’t handle the truth, and they shouldn’t have to.
While some children are more resilient and can just go about their business as usual, other children pick up on even the slightest frustration or disappointment in their parent and fall apart into tantrums or anxiety, phobias and depression. A parent may say something even fairly innocuous like: “oh, stop acting so spoiled” and the child may start to cry pitifully. Often, this crying makes the parent even more upset, because they can’t believe the child isn’t happy with what they have, or that they can’t be better behaved or less spoiled, so they become more disgusted. This further disgust, of course, makes the child cry harder and sometimes, become still more unhappy.
It is these feelings of worthlessness that ultimately lead children and adolescents to lose interest in their things – they simply don’t take pleasure in them anymore. It is also feelings of worthlessness that lead them to lose interest in achieving things – it’s 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 may express their frustration and disappointment by yelling, or hounding or lecturing too urgently to try to get their children to feel happier, and act more appreciated and motivated. Others may use the silent treatment. Looks of disgust and emotional distancing also do the job.
The problem for clinicians who are brought in to help problems, is that these parents really love their children. They want the best for them, which is the source of the intensity of the feeling. They don’t know of any other way to express their passion and desire for their child to be a better person, so they are often unable to soft-pedal their feelings. It is just a cruel twist of fate that their passion and love should become so poisonous to so many children.
In the old days, this would have been called the generation gap. It is very had to close when nobody can understand anybody.
I encourage all parents to come to terms with and really examine and talk about how disappointing and frustrating their children can be. The feelings really are poisonous, but they are there, for every parent, so they need to come out somewhere, somehow – to a spouse, a neighbor, a therapist, someone, anyone, just not the child. Most parents don’t complain enough. 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. We have to learn how to use the feelings of frustration and disappointment in moderation.
Children really do need help being more grateful and less pushy. They really do need to work at being their best. When a parent is not overcome by disappointment and frustration, those lessons can be received. 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. It has been amazing for me, clinically, to observe how overwhelmed some children can become as a result of their parent’s suffering, even when it is unspoken or hardly apparent, especially if they already have a genetic pre-disposition to mental illness.
There is one theory in child psychology though that has endured the sands of time. And that is that emotional closeness, founded on mutual trust and admiration, can inoculate against a wide range of emotional problems, including the biggies: alcoholism, suicide and drug addiction. In fact, when there is enough closeness and mutual admiration and respect, a parent’s annoyance, irritation and frustration are actually manageable for a child.
So please, don’t stop giving your children anything. Expect the world from them, believe in them and foster their talents with all your heart and soul. Tell them 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 apparently, until the age of 23. That's any day now.