How Well-Meaning Parents Cheat Their Children of Self-Confidence and Self-Compassion

Today's parents are too often fed fictions of parental "love."

Posted Sep 16, 2011

Most of us think of love in terms of the comfort, passion, closeness, or tenderness it will bring. We imagine the enjoyment of passing hours and days with a beloved who pleases us in every way—touch, smell, conversation. Perhaps we even think of living happily ever after with the one we love. Unfortunately this is not love but its intoxicating sibling, idealization. Human love is more like the action of rocks grinding against each other—smoothing out the rough edges or shattering under unimaginable forces—than like mountain streams flowing together from two hearts and minds. Love is hard and tiring, filled with heartache and longing, but abiding through a changing landscape of feeling and disappointment. Love requires that we come to know our beloved realistically, as a regular human being with both weaknesses and limitations as well as strengths. When we feel ourselves truly loved, we know we are accepted realistically for who we are. For today's educated and well-meaning parents, however, there is a lot of confusion between idealizing their children and loving them.

Buddhists use the term "near enemy" to mean a superficial or misleading twin of a valuable state or attitude. A near enemy is highly dangerous because it deludes us into thinking we are doing something worthwhile when in fact we are doing just the opposite. In Buddhist parlance, then, idealization is the near enemy of love. It is a fanciful "love" that hides from itself the weaknesses, difficulty or limitations of the beloved or in some cases transfers them unknowingly to someone else—a mother-in-law, a step-parent, a sibling or a teacher. The difference between idealization and love is not to be taken lightly. Mistaking one for the other can lead even the most well-meaning parent astray and damage the very child her or she is trying to nurture and protect.

The Self-Esteem Trap

Idealization creates a special version of those we claim to love—a version without failings or weaknesses. Seeing our children in this way—as exceptional, extraordinary or perfect—paves the way to disillusionment or, worse, a distortion in the way the child forms an identity and experiences his or her teenage or adult self. If, as a child, we repeatedly hear how talented, beautiful, smart, or promising we are, we will tend to grow up with an intolerance for weakness and difficulty in others, and an even greater intolerance for imperfections in ourselves. Parents who repeatedly tell their children "Don't settle for anything less than your dreams" are unknowingly putting extraordinary pressure on a developing human being—pressure to be exceptional.

I have referred to such a condition elsewhere as the "self-esteem trap"—an inability to embrace our own imperfections and the imperfections of the world. When idealized children become young adults, their false expectations about themselves and about life make it impossible for them to admit to error or weakness without a lot of shame. As a result, they put enormous pressure on themselves to do better, lose confidence, and tend to believe they have a problem with self-esteem. In most cases, they become mired in obsessive concerns about how to increase their good feelings about themselves, sadly trapping themselves into even more self-consciousness and self-blame.

In order to have confidence and compassion towards ourselves and others, we must develop the resilience and courage to deal effectively with the ordinary difficulties of life. Our years of childhood dependence allow us to develop both if we are permitted and encouraged to master two foundational skills: autonomy (skillful self-governance and self-determination) and interdependence (collaboration and sharing with and real interest in others). If we are deprived of that opportunity, however, we may become victims of the self-esteem trap.

Intoxicated with Our Children

Confusing idealization and love, today's parents unintentionally and ironically interfere with their children's abilities to develop confidence and compassion towards self and others. Consequently, educated young adults entering the workforce over the past decade and a half have often found themselves unprepared for the demands of adult life, unable to make good decisions for guiding their lives and without the requisite skills of sharing, collaborating, and respecting authority. What are we doing wrong with our child-rearing, as informed as we try to be by expert advice and intelligent concern for child development?

 In place of a knowledge about human love, today's parents are too often fed fictions of parental "love" that portray good (maybe even perfect) parents as being constantly "child-centered": giving their children endless attention, affection, and resources. They make their children's needs the center of attention in every social setting. In return the parents assume they will be rewarded one day by grown-up individuals who are self-confident, empathic, loving, able to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves, and happy to care for their aging parents. These fictional adult children will, someday, reflect and repay the good parenting they received. After all that parental sacrifice, according to the fictions, the children will be grateful and generous.

Sadly, none of this works. The hothouse attentions of child-centered parenting and the constantly positive focus of distorting idealization create a home environment that cannot be reproduced in the real world. Instead of preparing our children to grow into confident and responsive adults, our unrealistic parenting leaves them mired in excessive self-concern, afraid of the challenges of adult life, and feeling bad or even defective if they don't achieve exceptional status, wealth or accomplishments by age 28 or so.

Of course it's perfectly normal to idealize an infant. Parents almost have to idealize a new baby: infants are so demanding of our time, energy, and services that if we viewed them realistically, the human race would come to a crashing halt. But in order for children and parents to develop functional healthy relationships (in which parents take the lead in helping their children become members of a family and society), the idealization of an infant child should begin to shift after the first six months or so. If, instead, idealization continues to displace love throughout childhood and adolescence, a parent will lose his or her leadership role and become enmeshed or self-identified with the child.

Beneath it all, idealization is a pressure or demand on the beloved to be the perfect other: a mirror image of ourselves or the image of what would complete us. The supposed talents or abilities or beauty of the child unconsciously, unintentionally become the special resource of the parent. As a result, the parent must protect the perfect image of the child at all costs. When a parent consistently prefaces any complaint about her child with a compliment (for instance, "Sam is such a bright boy, that's why he doesn't pay attention to his teacher, he's just bored"), I can tell that the child is being used as a resource for the parent's self-esteem. Realistically, we should be able to see and openly complain about our children's weaknesses and mistakes: a human childhood is long and demanding and produces a lot of ambivalence in both parents and children. Our children bring us both joys and troubles.

Sometimes, when idealization becomes the norm, a parent stops expressing any negative feelings about a child and may even stop feeling any. But children know that they are both good and bad. They are thrown off balance when their parent seems to feel otherwise, although they understand the advantages of being "perfect" and may not want to give them up. At the time, they feel a pressure, perhaps only a subtle one, to protect their "golden" status; but later on they'll be caught in the self-esteem trap, with its own constant pressures and illusory ideals. Deprived of the taste of reality, a golden child may be confused or shocked when he or she goes out into the world. Golden children know very well how to be desirable, and they expect to feel the warm glow of others' praise, admiration, attention, and affection. When it isn't forthcoming, they fall into the confusion and anxiety of feeling fundamentally unworthy. Although they may not behave openly like they have a special self, the pressure to be perfect is always under the surface.

As Madeleine Levine reports in her 2006 book, The Price of Privilege, America's newly identified at-risk group for high levels of emotional disorders (especially anxiety and depression), are preteens and teens from affluent families, those with an annual household income of $120,000 and more. Their vulnerability goes against our stereotypes. These are not families where children are neglected, but rather where parents are overinvolved. Many of these well-off "helicopter parents," hovering over their perfect children, have an idealized enmeshment with them, unknowingly wanting the child to complete their fantasy of perfection or fame. In failing to hold their children accountable, in showering them with unalloyed praise and privileges, they are holding up the distorting mirror of idealization. It reflects, "You're perfect because you're mine."

Because doubts about their own perfection persist in spite of such assurances, parental idealization can make teens and young adults almost addicted to talking with their parents. Cell phones allow college students to be in touch with their helicopter parents several times a day. In fact, when I interviewed Dr. David Landers, from Saint Michael's College, he said that parent-child enmeshment was one of the biggest problems he faced when he was director of the college counseling center. Dr. Landers believes that parents are using their children to feel better about themselves. He recalled, "I had a mother call me to tell me that her daughter calls her every day at 10 AM to complain about the college; she calls and spends about a half hour on the phone. The mother wanted to know what to do, and I told her, ‘Don't answer the phone.'" Landers believes that a lack of realism is the problem of these helicopter parents who hover over their children's lives daily, even when their children are away at college.

Idealizing a child or a parent instead of loving that person replaces a healthy relationship with distortion and enmeshment. As a result, when the idealized children of helicopter parents step out on their own to find a a partner, they may fail to establish a healthy loving relationship. Either they can't find a partner to supply a new mirror that reflects, "You're perfect because you' re mine"—or they do.

Cultivating ordinariness in our children and ourselves, showing and teaching them how to share and collaborate with others, vastly improves their chances of letting go of unrealistic desires and loving their partners in adulthood. In the example we set and the preparation we give our children, we must emphasize the need for modesty, tolerance, and self-correction in steering the course of love. The parent-child bond, the life partner bond, the sibling bond, and the friendship bond all depend on our being able to reflect realistically on ourselves, especially on our faults and limitations. If our children are to develop autonomy so that they can govern themselves and prepare for love in their adult lives, they need to learn how to make good use of criticism and to check themselves to see what is really going on. They need to learn the true nature of love.