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Are Over-Parented Kids Doomed to Become Unhappy Grown-Ups?

Posted: 06/24/11 02:00 PM ET

In a recent piece in The Atlantic titled, not terribly ironically, "How to Land Your Kid In Therapy," Lori Gottlieb, a writer and psychotherapy intern, posits that over-involved parenting is to blame for an epidemic of general, amorphous unhappiness that often comes out years later, in these kids' 20s and 30s, on a therapist's couch. While Gottlieb's claim that this style of parenting has created a generation of narcissists isn't something we'd agree with, in the research we did for our book, Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career--and Life--That's Right for You, we certainly found that many of the Millennial generation (also referred to as GenY) were parented in an extremely kid-centric way... and that this can, indeed, contribute to a general sense of dissatisfaction and overwhelm in adulthood. Primarily when it comes to making decisions -- and being satisfied with them. But is it the whole story?

Too often today, parents rush in to protect their children from experiencing anything "less than pleasant," as Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA, says in Gottlieb's piece. We believe it! And it serves to explain -- at least partially -- the paralyzing fear of failure we saw time and again in the hundreds of women - and experts we spoke to while researching Undecided. As psychologist Ramini Durvasula told us, "You'll get over a failure, but you will never recover from regret. That's not recoverable." But these are kids who've never been allowed to fail -- and, thus, are that much more terrified of taking a chance. How much more regret must they feel? Cue the angst over the road not traveled.

If a child is raised playing sports where scorekeeping is not allowed, is it any surprise he or she is not going to deal with failure very well? And if every kid gets a trophy -- even the ones who are "picking daisies", to borrow a phrase from the coach Gottlieb quoted in her article, when they should be running plays -- is it any surprise those kids are going to grow up to be approval junkies, more than a little bit lost when their every move is not met with a "good try!"? The current stereotype of GenY as narcissistic and entitled might be a little short-sighted: this generation was raised on gold stars and approval. When they hit the real world of work, of course they're at a loss: where are the constant words of encouragement? Where are the trophies? Is this really narcissism? Or a logical ineptitude, given the way in which they were raised?

As feminist scholar Laura Ellingson, PhD, a professor of communication and gender studies at Santa Clara University told us, "Once these superachievers get into the workplace -- where they don't find the comfortable fit of college -- they come up against the messy nature of the real world. And often, their paycheck comes with a job description that requires more in the way of computer skills than any knowledge of Milton or Sartre." Still, raised to believe that they can do anything -- and that anything less than perfection is failure, when they confront the gulf between expectations and reality, there's that nagging feeling that they didn't try hard enough. Or that they chose wrong.

Another issue, of course, is the impossibly high set of expectations that go hand-in-hand with uber-parenting. Take Anna, for example, who told us, confessionally, that she was raised to believe she must do something amazing with her life -- but all she really wanted to do was teach little kids.

All?

Gottlieb makes another point that resonates. "Kindlon also observed that because we tend to have fewer kids than past generations of parents did, each becomes more precious. So we demand more from them -- more companionship, more achievement, more happiness. Which is where the line between selflessness (making our kids happy) and selfishness (making ourselves happy) becomes especially thin."

What might this do to a kid? Take the example of Jane, an extremely gifted -- and extremely lost -- twenty-something we profile in Undecided. Speaking about her struggle over trying to decide whether to quit her job for an intriguing new offer, she said: "If I could answer everyone's question -- 'What do you want?' -- I'd do that. But how do I know what I want?"

Is it all the parents' fault? Of course not. It's a kid-centric time; ours is a kid-centric culture, one that puts parenthood on a holy pedestal, fetishizing pregnancy (Bump Watch, anyone?) while offering advice on the right way to do everything, starting from the time your bundle of joy is conceived. (Actually, the advice starts before conception: don't forget your folic acid!) And, for the women raised by feminist mothers who are now becoming mothers themselves, there's often more than a little bit of guilt, sadness, and mixed emotions over dialing back one's career in order to make time for baby. (A dialing back that's often not exactly optional; there's a dearth of jobs that allow moms financial and intellectual satisfaction and time to parent the way they'd like. Many of us are forced to ramp down, when the cost of day care doesn't price us out of work completely, that is.) We're successful and accomplished -- and, absent a boardroom, we'll focus our capability on managing the project of parenthood.

But rather than telling parents they're doing it wrong, maybe we should take a longer view -- and a closer look at the culture as a whole, instead.

 
 
 

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