If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Happiness and Parenting

In the past two days I have run across this article referenced in a number of blogs and tweets.  It took 2 or 3 mentions to get me to read it and another 2 or 3 to get me to comment on it.  You may have to read it yourself to follow the rest of this post.  So go ahead.  I'll wait.

Now I've read several reactions to this article that endorse "helicopter-free" or "boosting emotional immunity" parenting.  Others are worried that they might be engaging in the obsessively positive parenting described in the article.  And I get the appeal of this article and of renouncing helicopter parenting, I really do.  There are sections of the article that ring very true to me, however (and you knew there had to be a big however) the underlying assumptions of the article are seriously flawed.

One problematic assumption is clearly demonstrated in the title.  Then in the first paragraph, the author (a therapist and mother) admits to being trained to see the problems of adulthood as being the fault of parents.  When she could not find evidence of poor parenting among her patients she (and it would appear the field of clinical psychology) decided that positive parenting is to blame.  Sounds like a damned if you do/damned if you don't scenario to me.

And while it is not explicitly said in the article, we are in fact speaking primarily of mothers.  Mother-blaming has been around for a very long time.  Perhaps as long as mothers have been around but I don't have the research to back that statement.

She claims the research shows parental fault to be the cause of adult neuroses (she does excuse mothers from the blame of schizophrenia) but that is because the research focuses on parental influence.  Science is not perfect and tends to find what it looks for.  I'm not saying that parents don't have a huge influence on their children's mental health, they obviously do, but there are many other influences that are not discussed.  There are also so-called parental influences, such as poverty or economic hardship, that most parents are not able to control.

In my own life, if I can get past what my mother and father did or didn't do, I can easily name significant people and events that have shaped my attitudes, behaviors, and sanity in adulthood. Other children stand out pretty big in my childhood.  For much of my elementary and middle school years, other children had a far bigger influence on my understanding of and expectations for happiness than either of my parents.  Teachers and camp counselors had a smaller but still significant effect.  As for the media, I blame Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda for shaping my expectations on women's roles in society.

Enough with the mother-blaming.  Articles like this one are damaging because they refuse to acknowledge the larger context in which we all parent and helps further the never-ending "Mommy Wars."

The author has also bought into our societal messages on happiness and independence.  These are cultural constructs and not facts.  Not all cultures raise their children to be "productive, happy adults." Not all cultures expect to pursue happiness and certainly not all expect to obtain it 95% of the time. Some cultures accept emotions to be what they are: transient experiences.  Also not all cultures expect their children to leave the nest.  In some cultures children stay home or close to home and start their own families which then become extension of the original family.  Some cultures find it shocking that we expect our children to live away from the family in their early twenties.  Some of these cultures exist right here in America.

So who are the people portrayed in this article?  It is written to sound like this is happening all across America.  As if these behaviors can speak to all Americans.  In fact they do not.  Class and race are not considered in this article.  Too often our parenting advice is based on White, upper middle-class values and behaviors.  Class may be the biggest missing context in this article.  Protecting your children from unhappiness or misfortune looks a lot different among working-class families and different again among families living in poverty.

At the very end of the article the author admits that not all children are the same and implies that temperament may have something to do with how children respond to their upbringing.  In reviewing my own parenting behaviors (as this article practically forces you to do) I can see a lot of ways in which I protected Angel and weakened his emotional immune system.  However I also remember there were many opportunities to put his immune system to work.  He was a child capable of experiencing both great joy and great sorrow.  So far he has not required therapy as an adult.  He enjoys being happy but doesn't expect it to be a constant in his life.  Does that mean I was/am a good parent?  If he should require therapy in the future, would it mean I was a bad one?


Drax said...

Oh I can not wait to see what folks have to say about THIS. Meanwhile, our hero sits mumbling to his shadow, "All her fault, all her fault, all her fault."

Ianqui said...

I'm one of the people that linked to the article, so I just want to say that I agree that it's not a scientific study of the effects of helicopter parenting. My reaction to it was more tongue-in-cheek than anything else--you know, it's something else that absolves me of not being interested in hovering over my child and fixing his every problem.

Still, I'd be very interested in a large-scale long term study of the effects of helicopter parenting. I know there are some books that decry it already, but I'm not sure if those are particularly scientific either.

Brigindo said...

Ianqui - I did see the humor in your post and I didn't mean to imply that everyone was taking this to heart or over-analyzing their own parenting (although that is definitely my MO). But I do think we've been conditioned to judge our parenting against impossible standards; to see ourselves as either good or bad mothers and for the proof of that to be reflected in how our children behave. So an article like this not only reinforces that thinking but also takes it a step further. There is a point in the article where it is implied that enjoying your child too much and wanting them to be around you as adults is pathological-to them and you. For me, that's always been the goal of parenting--to raise children to be adults you actually enjoy spending time with.

Annie said...

Hi Brigindo,

The article brings up questions, but no answers. I'd rather be the parent in attune with my child's needs, and I agree with your parenting goal- raising a child to be an adult you enjoy spending time with (and, of course, the reverse would be true).

My husband once said that therapy is a luxury. I think, it's just, that these adult children have the time to reflect upon their lives, and they either have the disposable income or their parents have the disposable income to indulge in this luxury. What my husband was saying, was that therapy is beneficial and desirable.

I can understand the concerns with overindulgence, but not really- without spoiling a child, or taking away their autonomy, especially as they move into adulthood- indulgence and involvement is preferable to any form of austerity or neglect. I think periods of feeling a lack of direction and general unease is inherent in all of us, no matter how difficult or rosy our childhood may have been.

I also found your observations about influences outside of our parents to be interesting. I experienced specific childhood traumas, most of them to do with my family; but several crucial experiences, independent of my childhood family, and my response to these positive and negative influences, helped to shape who I am.