Black Heart, Better Parent

This hurts me more than it hurts...wait, no, this is actually pretty damn funny!

sh wreck

A few years ago on a blustery winter day my wife and I took our three-year-old to the beach. He was furiously beating back the tide with a stick and we adults (the two of us and a close friend) had assumed the customary pose--hands wrapped around hot double lattes, shoulders scrunched inside fleece jackets, trying to hide from from the evil, spitting rain. All in all, a fairly pleasant Saturday, at least by Seattle standards. 

But good times always end too quickly, especially when there's cold water, a stick and a child involved. To make the most of our brief moment in the sun (figuratively speaking), I proposed, "Five bucks says he doesn't last two minutes." "Three," my wife chimed in. Our (childless) friend said, "No way, I gotta believe he'll go at least five." 

Game on!

One minute, forty-two seconds later there was a splash and a piercing scream followed by a steady wail. What did we do? We laughed our butts off, 0f course.   

Maybe a little too loudly. Down the beach, a couple sitting on a bench with a strollered infant stared at us in horror, no doubt debating whether to call Child Protective Services. (Just wait till your kid starts walking, pal...) 

Because I am a gracious winner, and because those visits from CPS are such a bother, I agreed to retrieve the body, but not before collecting my money and offering to buy the next round. By that time my son had already picked himself up and covered more than half the distance between us. I scooped him up, checked for bleeding and dried his face with my fleece sleeve (so light, yet so absorbent!).

He was fine. A little shaken, but otherwise unharmed. The wail was now just a wimper, and because he was himself wearing fleece, there was little danger of hypothermia (insulates even when wet!). We felt safe stopping for refills before heading home. 

It was a healthy experience all around. The adults had a good laugh and the boy, slightly mocked and briefly neglected, took one step closer to being a happy, well-adjusted adult.

--At least according to Lori Gottlieb, psychologist and author of "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy" (Atlantic, July/August 2011).

Gottlieb's article challenges the assumption that happy childhoods make for happy adults. As a therapist, she's alarmed by the number of unhappy patients she sees in their twenties and thirties who, at least according to conventional psychological standards, have no apparent reason to be unhappy. That is, they are neither mentally ill nor did they have painful childhoods. In fact, most claim very pleasant childhoods and loving, supportive parents. 

But that's just it, argues Gottlieb, their parents were too good, too attentive to their needs. The problem with today's parents is not that we want our children to be happy, it's that (a) we define a happy childhood as one devoid of pain, anxiety and disappointment, however temporary or minor, and (b) we foolishly believe that such happiness is, and should be, wholly within our control as parents. Hence, we rush to our children's side every time they fall (if we leave their side at all), lavishly praise them for things they're supposed to do, and bend over backwards trying to keep them entertained and unburdened. 

We don't give our children the opportunity to become self-reliant, emotionally or otherwise. Consequently, they never develop a sufficient immunity to the innumerable difficulties life throws our way. As adults, they remain as fragile as teacups; anything less than perfect bliss leaves them feeling vulnerable, empty and dejected--and running to the therapist's couch, most likely on their parents' dime. 

I hate to brag, but in light of Gottlieb's argument, I'm proud of the fact that I've been chastised more than once by overprotective mothers who didn't think I reacted appropriately to a nasty fall or hurt feelings. 

I can't congratulate myself too much, however. I have to admit that my kids do have it pretty good. They have dental insurance and bike helmets, and I take their education seriously. I always read every word in their school progress reports. I even hug them from time to time--not in public, of course.

Nevertheless, I remain committed to the the noble goal of helping them grow into resigned, psychologically-numbed adults. (My wife would be content with financially independent taxpayers, but I've always had bigger dreams for them.) So I've vowed to redouble my efforts to give them all the advantages and opportunities I never had growing up--like playing with real bullets and spending the entire night in the furnace room for not putting their toys away. 

I draw the line, however at making them wear cotton in the rain. I'm no monster. 

Copyright 2013 Paul J. Rasmussen