Ask Emma

Advice on love and sanity for the 21st century

Do You Have Psychological Immunity: Too much good parenting makes us unhappy too

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Can good parenting be too much of a good thing? Psychologist Lori Gottlieb writing in The Atlantic says so. She talks about the young patients that she sees who come in her office, have great jobs, money, loving parents, great New York apartments, but who complain of being “not happy enough.”

Certainly, our expectations are very high compared to that of generations before us. They had religion too. What I mean by that is that they had a view of life as being filled with difficulty, but rendered meaningful in relation to a Divine Plan of some kind that gave their suffering dignity. I’m not saying everyone had that, only that it was not uncommon, and you don’t need that if you are happy. Or it is a different kind of happiness?

She argues that what may have happened with parenting is that parents have insulated their children from pain and displeasure to a point that they have expectations that all will go well all the time. Here is an excerpt:

“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 ThingRaising 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.”

“It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” he explained. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. 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.’”

I don’t disagree with this, but it all points to a general and larger problem of narcissism that is the cultural sea that we all swim in. We are also not — anymore — existentialists. Not only have many of us dispensed with religion, but we have also dispensed with the terrible weight of the existential realities that we are born with — that things are transient, that life is disappointing, that we have freedom but not power, that 90 percent of life is just showing up.

I think in an earlier time, we were just smarter. We knew things could be hard. We enjoyed what we could enjoy and suffered what we suffered. We’ve lost our grip on the real somehow.

Categories: General
Alistair Highet

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