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You Can't Win: Why Parents Feel Guilty

Is too much love really bad for kids?

A piece in Atlantic Magazine got to me this week. It's called "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids' happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods."

The article exemplifies everything that makes parenting so hard and why many parents are so mired in guilt and self-doubt. I agreed with most of what the article said: parents need to support their kids but push them, discipline them, and step back and let succeed or fail on their own. It railed against helicopter parents and talked about authoritative parenting - a style of parenting that is strict, loving, and respects children as autonomous individuals. Researchers have shown for 90 years that kids with authoritative parents tend to be happier, more socially skilled, less involved in problem behavior, and do better in school, at work, and in relationsips.

But the article made me feel guilty anyway.

And - uniquely - guilty for two different and completely incompatible reasons.

I had just been talking to my eldest son, who is leaving for 27 months in rural South African to serve in the Peace Corps. He had sold his car and was settling accounts before leaving the country. That left him debt free but his bank account with - well, let's just say enough to buy a really good cart of groceries. I was ordering a few things he needed for his trip . Really practical things like a rain poncho. The kind of thing any decent parent would want their kid to have if they were going to be living in a place with jackals, elephants, and rats wandering through their 'yard'. Then we started to talk about a cell phone, which will work where he's going, is cheaper to buy here, and will be his only way to contact us other than the four week mail service.

"Stop," he said. I looked at him.

"You're doing too much. You're being wonderful, but you're doing too much."

Can a parent be TOO supportive?

Now this is something he and I have talked about before - that getting too much support from home can make him wonder if he can really make it on his own. And I didn't buy the cell phone and we decided the old sandals he had now would last long enough in Africa for him to find another pair there. I can, occasionally, take a hint.

But that interaction was fresh in my mind when I read the Atlantic piece. It made the opening paragraphs feel like I'd been stabbed through the heart.

Writing about the parents of the unhappy, adrift young people wandering forlornly into her office for therapy, the author writes:

"In short, these were parents who had always been "attuned," as we therapists like to say, and had made sure to guide my patients through any and all trials and tribulations of childhood. As an overwhelmed parent myself, I'd sit in session and secretly wonder how these fabulous parents had done it all.

Until, one day, another question occurred to me: Was it possible these parents had done too much? "

Oh, my God, I thought. What if I'm one of THOSE parents? Isn't that what my son had been saying - that we'd smoothed too many of the rough edges off his life? I felt my anxiety level going through the roof.

The article went on to describe parents who picked their kids up immediately when they fell down, who drove them to soccer, who helped with homework, who talked with teachers about bad grades . . .

Oh no.

I felt overwhelmed by a feeling that I don't experience all that often: GUILT. I had tried so hard and here was an article telling me I had done it all wrong. Yes, the kids looked happy now. But that was only temporary. Soon enough, I'd see I'd really messed them up by being too involved. It was just a matter of time.

Now as I read on in this piece I saw that I probably wasn't the kind of parent they were talking about. I don't want to be my kids' best friend - I want to be their mother. I didn't even go to parent orientation when eldest went to college. He was going to college- what did I have to do with it except step back, pay the bills, and check in to make sure he was okay? And - as anyone who knows me could tell you - I'm not the kind of 'fabulous' parents who does it all. Like my own mother, I consistently sent my kids to school in the rain on foot, telling them they 'won't melt'. They are under - not over - burdened with toys (though not books), rarely have pocket money they haven't earned working for someone else (standard chores are a child's contribution to the household, not an extra they should be paid for). We don't even have a tv. And, no, I didn't let my son quit violin when it got hard and, yes, he practices every day except for the one month 'vacation' he gets every summer. And, no, he doesn't always like it.

So by the middle of the article I was feeling better.

Until I hit the end. And then it hit me again: GUILT.

I had tried to keep my kids happy, spend lots of time with them, and be supportive. I'm a DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGIST. I study PARENTING. And I know that optimal development is best fostered by what the great Soviet psychologist Leontev called 'the maximum of challenge and the maximum of support.'

I wanted my kids to be happy. I wanted to do everything I could for them. I wanted to be supportive and patient and loving ALL THE TIME. And I had failed.

I wasn't a mother that could be accused of being 'too loving' or 'doing too much'. And some deep part of me wanted to be. Because parenting is one of the most important things that those of us who have children do with their lives, we want to do it well. And part of that, maybe the most important part, is being supportive.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

And there you have parenting: You're damned if you're too supportive and you're damned if you're not supportive enough.

I learned two things from reading this piece.

First, in a lot of ways, I think that guilt and self-doubt are marks of a really good parent. If you're constantly thinking about what you're doing and doubting yourself, it may be that you care enough to be trying to do your best at a job that is - as any psychologist will tell you - very, very important long term for your kids and really, really frustrating. Who can be perfect for the 20+ years it takes to bring up a kid? In the long run, caring will probably get you - and your kids - through a lot.

The second thing that struck me is that what is wrong with the 'too good' parents ISN'T that they're overly involved, too warm, or protect their kids too much. What's wrong with those parents is that their parenting is driven by their own needs and not the needs of their children. What children need is to be happy because they are learning and growing and doing things they love. And sometimes - often - growth is painful because it means you're doing things you're uncomfortable with.

And sometimes they aren't all that happy with you as their parent when you push them a little in that direction. Sometimes it means their performance isn't as good as it could be, because - frankly - most of the time the parent could do a better job on homework than they child can. And it can be embarrassing when you're child's self-made science project doesn't look as good as the one that looks like it was done by a professional graphic designer. But the goal of parenting isn't to make the PARENT feel good. It's to foster the development of the CHILD.

Some of the parents in the story seem to have lost that idea in their need to feel liked all the time and by judging their parenting by how 'happy' their child is at this moment, instead of how happy their children are in the long term.

Because that's what's wrong with the 20-something patients in the article. They love their parents. They just don't love themselves.