I want to spare my daughter any kind of pain, protect her from everything harmful, help her when she faces obstacles, discipline her with empathy, always give her choices and provide her with every opportunity and advantage under the sun.
Apparently, those things, which are supposed to make me a good mother, actually make me not such a good one.
So as things stand, I'm guilty of being the kind of mother likely to land her kids in therapy!
I know I sound preposterous, but don't laugh just yet.
The research and articles I have been reading may actually be on to something.
I did not want to admit it at first, but being a very loving and attentive parent may not be as good for our children as we think.
And this just may be the break we all need to maintain a bit of sanity as parents...
Two weeks ago, I had lunch with a good friend of mine who happens to be a child psychologist. She switched from clinical psychology to child psychology because she saw too many adults coming to therapy complaining they felt "unhappy", "empty", and "lost" even though they had no objective reasons to feel that way, and she wanted to deal with these issues from the beginning in the hopes that her kids wouldn't end up the ones on a couch across from a therapist.
After hearing her tell me more about her experiences, I did not want to admit to her what my bedside table looked like!
Stacked with over ten parenting books about everything -- from how to be a good parent, how to discipline your child, how to teach empathy, how to simplify their lives all the way to how to raise smart, successful and independent children -- I worried if I told her what I was doing, I would be lumped into the "overly attentive and loving parents who screw up their kids" group.
Then again, since I'm a stay at home mom who devotes most of her time and energy to her daughter, I was probably in that group already...so I had nothing to lose by delving a bit deeper.
I wanted to understand why something that seems intuitive -- loving and paying attention to your kids -- can become a case of "too much of a good thing is a bad thing".
Here's what I picked up about the downsides of overly attentive parenting:
- It parents for today, not tomorrow. What a two year old needs to be happy is not the same as what a 20 year old needs, or a 50. When my toddler falls, I often run to the rescue before she has a chance to deal with it on her own. I give her countless kisses every day and tell how perfect I think she is. At 18 months, this makes her happy. But research shows that what she'll need to be happy when she's 20, 30, 50 and beyond is perseverance and resiliency -- traits she can only pick up if she's been allowed to face adversity and experience the pride that results when she emerges stronger from the experience. So it's important to balance loving our kids with doing what's in their long term best interest.
- It gives our children a distorted image of real life. Being overly loving and attentive, constantly singing our children's praises and protecting them from any unpleasant experience can make the world seem like it's a wonderful place free of hardships. So the minute our children are out from under our wings and realize the world is full of challenges to overcome, they may be in for a harrowing surprise and find it difficult to navigate the day-to-day on their own.
- It deprives our children of learning from their own mistakes. We may not need to touch fire to know it burns, but there are things we need to experience for ourselves in order to make better decisions down the line. Sheltering our children from the discomforts of making mistakes can backfire. If they do not learn from a young age how to evaluate situations and make good decisions for themselves, they will find it much harder to judge more complex situations on their own the older they get.
- It can blur the parent/child boundary. When we are over-involved in our children's lives and so concerned with not angering them, we may cower form doing the hard parts of parenting while the children may come to think of us as friends and lose respect for our authority. This can lead to over indulgence and choices made out of a fear of losing their love or approval. Yes, it's important to have a trusting relationship with our children where they feel comfortable and happy to share things with us, but losing sight of our main job -- parents, not friends -- is in no one's best interest.
- It teaches children over-reliance and even helplessness. Whether we do a lot for our children on a daily basis, tell them to focus on homework and forget chores, deal ourselves with their social problems instead of letting them work it out, or rush to their side the minute something is not right, we are sending the message that someone will always be there to pick up the pieces, or worse, that we do not trust them to solve things on their own.
- It delays the inevitable. Pain, disappointment and frustration are inevitable parts of growing up. While we may want to move the toy closer to our baby who is trying to crawl, or to sprint to our toddler who has tumbled over before they even cry, or to buy our child the coolest new toy so they don't feel disappointed, or to personally deal with the school bully, sheltering children from all of life's frustrations and running to the rescue before they've even tried on their own is simply delaying the inevitable. One day, they will have to deal with these frustrations -- and much bigger ones too -- and if we have always been there, they may feel incapable of solving these problems on their own.
- It gives children an inflated and unrealistic sense of self. I think my daughter is the cutest, smartest and most amazing toddler to walk the planet. But I can guarantee you that, with the exception of her father and maybe her grandparents, nobody else in the world feels that way. So if for her entire childhood we tell her how special she is, when she grows up and the outside world cannot corroborate what we've been telling her all along, she will either hate the outside world and not know how to deal with it, or lose trust in her parents for not being forthcoming and preparing her well for it.
- It sends the wrong message. Children need support, love and guidance to blossom into who they are destined to be. Intervening too much and singing praises that aren't true (which kids can quickly pick up on) can unintentionally send the message that we want a child who is a certain way rather than the child we have. Children can respond by denying who they are or trying very hard to become something they are not to please their parents, which will only cause dissatisfaction later in life.
- It hurts us as parents as well. Over-parenting is sometimes a way for parents to deal with our own issues -- whether filling a void, using children's success as a proxy for our own or competing with other parents through our children. Either way, we wont' always be able to be fully engaged and present in our children's lives and not learning to let go and trust our children early on will only make it harder when we eventually have to.
I leave you with a page from the book The Parent's Tao Te Ching.