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The downside of self-esteem

Lou Brooks, The Atlantic Magazine

This month we can’t seem to get away from that saying, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.”  First in a novel and now a cover story in The Atlantic on “The Cult of Self Esteem”  in which therapist Lori Gottlieb writes a prescription for “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.”

Based on interviews with experts and her 20-something patients who lament less-than-perfect lives, Ms. Gottlieb comes to the conclusion that many parents have unwittingly harmed their children by smoothing their path through life.  Her young adult patients have no complaints about their “perfect” parents,

They truly did seem to have caring and loving parents, parents who gave them the freedom to “find themselves” and the encouragement to do anything they wanted in life. Parents who had driven carpools, and helped with homework each night, and intervened when there was a bully at school or a birthday invitation not received, and had gotten them tutors when they struggled in math, and music lessons when they expressed an interest in guitar (but let them quit when they lost that interest), and talked through their feelings when they broke the rules, instead of punishing them (“logical consequences” always stood in for punishment). 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?

Ms. Gottlieb shows that in doing too much for their children, many parents have left them both unprepared to handle adversity and saddled with the expectation that life is a bowl of cherries, not a box of chocolates.

Why do parents want to shield their children and not prepare them to leave the nest?  We don’t really want them to leave because they fill “emotional holes” in our lives, according to one expert.  Ms. Gottlieb interviews Jeff Blume, a family psychologist with a busy practice in Los Angeles, who notes

“A kid needs to feel normal anxiety to be resilient. If we want our kids to grow up and be more independent, then we should prepare our kids to leave us every day.”

…“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.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Valerie July 26, 2011, 10:27 am

    As I recall an article in, I believe, “Parenting” magazine from the early 90s, the author Dr. Penelope Leach (heaven knows why I would actually remember her name!) advised things like leaving the grocery store when a child had a meltdown because they couldn’t have something they wanted. That article was why I canceled my subscription. I remember wondering what kind world she lived in, leaving the shopping behind because of the whims of a toddler. Yipes!

    That’s not to say that we didn’t make our share of mistakes with our kids. We’re somewhere in the middle, I think. (or at least I hope!)

  • Valerie July 26, 2011, 10:28 am

    My point was, that perhaps some of the failings of today’s parents has to do with the feel-good advise of the ‘experts’ they were listening to.

  • mary July 26, 2011, 10:52 am

    Yes indeed it was all those experts who recommended that we constantly praise our children, give them trophies for simply showing up, etc. Perhaps some of this style of parenting also reflects that our generation were NOT treated that way as children so we wanted to give our offspring something that we missed! That said, most children do face adversity or disappointment throughout their lives even as adults. I think the message is not to jump in and solve problems so quickly for them.

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