Samara O'Shea

Projective Parenting

I’m an advocate of emotions—all of them—even the uncomfortable, seemingly negative ones. They all serve a purpose, and I believe happiness is not one emotion but rather the mastery of all emotions. The well-lived life comes not from figuring out how to avoid failure, sadness, and embarrassment, but rather learning the best ways to deal with them.

The cover story of the July/August issue of The Atlantic is called “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” It details how 21st-Century parents are so focused on making sure their kids have a happy childhood, they aren’t teaching them how to deal with negative emotions. As a matter of fact, some parents try to keep negativity from their kids altogether. As you can imagine, this has depressing consequences. From the article:

“Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA who came to speak at my clinic . . . Based on what he sees in his practice, Bohn believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—’anything less than pleasant,’ as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.”

“Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock, Bohn says. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But, Bohn explains, this actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life.”

“Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, warns against what he calls our ‘discomfort with discomfort’ in his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. If kids can’t experience painful feelings, Kindlon told me when I called him not long ago, they won’t develop ‘psychological immunity.'”

“Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.'”

It’s me again: The article goes on to say that many parents are using their kids to deal with their own issues. I believe parents have always done this, in the past it was done with too much discipline and now it’s done with no discipline. They are two dangerous extremes that do not benefit anyone, least of all the child. Back to the article:

“‘We’re confusing our own needs with our kids’ needs and calling it good parenting,’ Blume said, letting out a sigh. I asked him why he sighed. (This is what happens when two therapists have a conversation.) ‘It’s sad to watch,’ he explained. ‘I can’t tell you how often I have to say to parents that they’re putting too much emphasis on their kids’ feelings because of their own issues. If a therapist is telling you to pay less attention to your kid’s feelings, you know something has gotten way of out of whack.'”

“Despite the spate of articles in recent years exploring why so many people in their 20s seem reluctant to grow up, the problem may be less that kids are refusing to separate and individuate than that their parents are resisting doing so.”

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.

Me again: Last December I read a book called The Art of Loving. Author Erich Fromm speaks a lot about the love between parents and children, and he warns parents that having children will not psychologically restore them. That is something each person can only do for himself. From The Art of Loving:

“Another form of projection is the projection of one’s own problems on the children. First of all such projection takes place not infrequently in the wish for children. In such case, the wish for children is primarily determined by projecting one’s own problems of existence on that of the children. When a person feels that he has not been able to make sense of his own life, he tries to make sense of it in terms of his children. But one is bound to fail within oneself and for the children. The former because the problem of existence can be solved by each only for himself, and not by proxy; the latter because one lacks in the very qualities which one needs to guide the children in their own search for an answer.”

Final thoughts: This article made me more grateful for my own parents. I think my grandparents generation was too strict and emotionally distant with child rearing, and this generation is not strict at all and emotionally smothering. Somehow I ended up in the ideal middle with people who took great care of me while not letting me get away with anything. They were not afraid to let me fall down and pick myself back up. As an adult, that is how I care for myself—with a healthy mix of self love and discipline. Although this didn’t keep me out of therapy. Everyone needs therapy!