Thursday, June 23, 2011

One Vaccine My Kids Definitely Don't Need

Here's another topic butchered by Lori Gottlieb in How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Happiness. She asks the following question, and seems to answer YES, without a doubt:
Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?
In other words, in order for an adult to have a chance at happiness, he has to get doses of unhappiness (word used in the article: "devastation") as a child, dealt by or at least not stopped by his parents. Sort of like a vaccine against unhappiness. One psychologist quoted in the article describes the phenomenon of "psychological immunity," where kids should get used to settling for any crappy hand they get as early as possible in life. When parents step in and try to "fix" everything, he says, the kids won't learn to "adapt to less-than-perfect situations." The effectiveness of the unhappiness vaccine could be easily verified, because the kids with the most miserable childhoods should be the happiest adults. Right?

In my opinion, unhappiness will be caused by two types of things for each of my children:
  1. Things I can fix. Like when there's a rock in her shoe, or she is hungry at 2 am, or she doesn't want to be with someone who makes her uncomfortable, or she has an ear infection.
  2. Things I can't fix. Like if she gets an incurable disease, or someone dies, or a natural disaster occurs.
I won't "vaccinate" against the first type. I just fix those things as they come up. Because I have a different theory, also not backed by any data (if Gottlieb can do it, so can I): Kids who learn that many of their problems can be solved (by their parents, even) grow up to be adults who want to solve problems and fix things. At least it sounds logical. I will not teach my kids to simply "adapt" when something can be fixed. I want them to feel empowered to make changes in their own lives when a situation is unhappy yet avoidable. And I want them feel empowered to help other people do the same.

As for the second type of unhappiness situation, caused by something unfixable, I'm pretty sure no one would recommend giving our kids "practice" for these situations. Instead, we wait until, inevitably, life hands them one of the real things, and then we comfort them as best we can.

Therefore, I don't need their unhappiness vaccine at all. Instead of thinking unhappiness now will lead to happiness later, I'm going with this method: More happiness now. After all, there might not even be a later.

Here's another disturbing quote from the article:
The message we send kids with all the choices we give them is that they are entitled to a perfect life.
No one's life is perfect. No matter how much you do for your kids, they will not always get what they want. But the message I am sending my kids is that I will do anything I can to make them happy (without infringing on the rights of others, of course). I hope they will grow up to continue to do the same for themselves and other people.

I want my kids to know what "happy" feels like. Now. When it's relatively easy for them to be happy. How else will they know what to look for later?


More from me on Gottlieb’s article:

Part 4: One Vaccine My Kids Definitely Don’t Need


  1. Great post! Actually, there is lots of data for your theory. When parents communicate that they care enough to help their child "fix" what's wrong, the takeaway for the child is that she matters, she is lovable. That's the foundation of unshakable internal happiness, or what we call resilience.

    Gottlieb is just wrong in her conclusion that we need to let our children be unhappy. The conclusion from child development experts (and she is not one) would be that when things can't be fixed -- whether because it is out of our control, or because we have set a necessary limit-- then we need to tolerate our child's unhappiness. Kids DO need to be able to experience unhappiness and come out the other side. But they only have the strength to do that when we are there empathizing, and when they know they have our support, and that when we can, we do make things better.

  2. I want my kids to know what "happy" feels like also and I get bothered when other family members tease or snap at my child for no reason other than thier own personal issue such as being questioned about things, which is what all children do.What is the best way for me to handle these adults in a way that will benefit my childs understanding at the time these things take place?
    I don't want her to mock this behavior.

  3. I grew up with parents determined to have their parenting achieve a specific result. They wanted us to be happy, but to them that meant living a certain moral lifestyle, so they did everything in their power to keep their kids from ever making any mistakes that could lead to their "unhappiness". It sucked. I wish that I had been allowed to live and make my own descisions instead of being overly controlled and protected in the interest of being "happy" and "godly". I fully plan on supporting my kids and encouraging them, but protecting them from life? No thanks.

  4. "The effectiveness of the unhappiness vaccine could be easily verified, because the kids with the most miserable childhoods should be the happiest adults. Right?"

    Since she starts out the article expecting all of her patients to have neglectful parents I am guessing no. I feel like we read different articles. You write as if she is advocating parents to make their kids unhappy on purpose so they can be happier later. I thought the article was geared towards so called, "helicopter parents". From what I have read of the unschooling lifestyle I don't see these styles being the same. Helicopter parents don't let their children do anything. They even prevent them from doing something just because it might make them unhappy. Like climbing a tree because they could fall down and get hurt.

    From the one example in the article where a child falls at the park the writer suggests giving a child a second to process what happened instead of swooping in immediately. I practice this because that's what my instinct has always told me to do. I am still empathetic. I don't go running to save my child, I just stay where I am and even open my arms wide open so they can come to me if they need me. Sometimes they come in for a quick hug or kiss and sometimes they don't.

    I read the article as suggesting to allow your child to feel the spectrum of emotions that exist and if they need you then you should help them. However just because things aren't perfect at the moment doesn't mean that they need you to "fix" it for them. If a kid loses a game we don't need to pretend it ended in a tie to make them feel better (now that's confusing!). Losing sucks but it doesn't mean the game wasn't fun. If they like the sport then should be having fun despite the loss.

  5. I don't think I have ever posted her but this spoke to me today.

    Vicki, I agree with you 100%. While I have not read Gotleibs article, it sounds to me that she is saying that kids need to feel unhappiness as a comparison to know what happiness really is. To a point, I understand that...HOWEVER, from BIRTH, our children experience things that do not make them happy... even if it's just that first sense of hunger. We respond to her need, feed them, and the hunger and unhappiness is appeased and she learns that we, as her parents, can be trusted and counted on to help her. Does she need to be left hungry so she can appreicate what it's like to feel full??? As she grows and gets that rock in her shoe, per se, to know what it feels like to walk without one in her shoe??? Doesn't she realize after a step or two that this doesn't feel nice and once we help her get it out, recongnize that it feels better... HAPPIER??? And doesn't that reinforce that we, as her parents, love her, want her to be happy and that she can depend on us to help her and teach her how to get that rock out??? As she grows and learns to take the rock out on her own, doesn't she learn that not only can she depend on us but she can depend on HERSELF for happiness??? That she doesn't have to accept a situation that makes her unhappy but has the control to change it for the better??? Because that's what I wanted for my kids! I wanted them to grow up knowing that happiness was within their control and that they didn't have to settle for a situation and live with it but had it in their control to change it and that I would do whatever I could to help them with that!

    And when situations happened that were beyond their control like the death pet or family member, or their best friend is suddenly no longer their best friend, or they get their first broken heart... I wanted my kids to be able to feel, to be able to be sad and cry....and know that they could turn to me for love, support and understanding...but that IT GETS BETTER! That they do not have to stay in that state of unhappiness. That they had the right and the ability to BE HAPPY!! That it was in their control and that I would do whatever I could to help them. It's just my opinion anyway...

  6. Melissa, I agree with you. I thought the article was geared towards helicopter parents, too.

    I often see parents at the playground gasp and run over and make a huge deal when their child gets hurt. These are usually the same parents hovering 2 inches from their child, narrating everything for them, working out every possible conflict, trying to teach them counting and numbers in the midst of play, and basically instructing them on how to play. I once had another mom physically move my daughter away from her daughter, saying her daughter was afraid of other children. Then why are you at a playground?! Have small play dates in a controlled environment if your kid needs experience socializing. I am a very attached parent, but when we are at the playground, most of the time I sit on a bench and read. I want my daughter to just PLAY. Also, I as her parent am not meant to be a playmate. Not to say I don't play with her sometimes...I definitely play with her daily...but historically speaking, and around the world, parents are not playmates and entertainment. Children play by themselves or with other children. Any way, back to the playground story, I have let her fall short distances to learn her limits (she is the kind of kid who needs to experience things, vs having me warn her.) I've let her have small arguments with children similar in age and size. At barely 2 years old, my daughter is GREAT at playing both by herself and with others...she will tell a child, "no, stop!" if they do something she doesn't like. She's very aware of her physical limits and won't go down the slide if she thinks it is too high, but is also not afraid to try new things. If she told me there was a rock in her shoe, I'd instruct her on how to get it out, let her try to get it out herself, and if she asked for help, give it to her. That's not to say that if I had a different child, I wouldn't parent differently...I've just followed my instincts with the kid I got! Then again, I'm also just about the only AP mom I know who felt very little guilt leaving my daughter with her dad for short periods of time, even if she cried, because I knew she knew him and would be comforted by him, and that they needed to work things out together. She is almost as comfortable with him as she is with me, and also feels secure with a few other adults in her life. I am not worried about my daughter being unhappy or scared or angry, or crying, as long as she is in a safe environment and has adults she knows and loves responding to her needs.

    In short, I agreed with the article. Kids need to be given the opportunity to do things themselves and experience unpleasant circumstances...they just need our love and support, and if they ask, our help, in the midst of it.

  7. First to those who seem to agree:
    @Dr. Laura Markham, Thank you! Yes that's exactly it. I know my child will be unhappy at times. But I don't have to relish those times. I can sympathize and be supportive of whatever unhappiness I can't prevent.

    @Anonymous #1, I know what you mean. I think I would try speaking up for my daughter, letting her know that you support her, and letting the others know that they are being hurtful. If they have a problem, they can talk about it nicely.

    @Lisa, Thank you so much for your comment. You nailed exactly what I was trying to say.

  8. Next:
    @Young Mom, I also do not want to protect my kids from "life," as in the inevitable disappointments that will happen. I think it's an important distinction that you bring up... I am not stopping my kids from doing things *I think* will make them unhappy. I am following their leads instead. My goal is not to craft a life for them which I think will bring them happiness, it is to empower them to be as happy as they can be.

    @MelissaJ, As far as losing a game, I would put that in category #2. I can't un-lose a game for my child, but I can comfort her. I felt like one of the experts (the one who said "Please let them be devastated many times on the soccer field") was advising that parents encourage early devastation. If my kid is devastated by something, I'm not going to say "gee, thanks, this will be good for her." I'm going to comfort her, and ask her if she wants to keep playing, or if it is too upsetting for her. Then, again, I will honor her wishes and her feelings.

    @MelissaJ and Anonymous #2, Part of the article seems geared toward the so-called "helicopter parents" but there are then several places in the article where she talks about these same parents "not setting limits" enough or not sticking to them properly and giving kids "too many choices" being a bad thing. I thought helicopter parents were very limiting and controlling, so that's what I don't understand about this article. That seems very contradictory.

    Also, I am not advocating stepping on the toes of your children to protect them or save them when they would rather do something on their own. That is not at all what I am about. To me, it's about honoring and respecting my children's needs. If they need me, I will run to them. If they don't want me, I will hold back. My next post about this article will be about independence. Maybe that will clear some of this up, or maybe not.

  9. "I felt like one of the experts (the one who said "Please let them be devastated many times on the soccer field") was advising that parents encourage early devastation. If my kid is devastated by something, I'm not going to say "gee, thanks, this will be good for her." I'm going to comfort her"

    That is exactly what the article is arguing for. Letting the child live, and teaching them self-nuture and comfort when they get hurt (skills they will need for a lifetime of aches and pains they cannot avoid). The article is arguing against parents who won't even allow their fall down, or participate in activites where they might fall down.

  10. I agree with Young Mom. I read those lines of the article differently then you, which I suppose is the problem of the written word. In my head I heard her saying those words with a hint of desperation and wit. Screaming out to all those parents who fear their child every being unhappy. As to say its okay, devastation can be handled by your child, let them surprise you. Alright.. I see your next post is live I will move on to that one now.

  11. @Young Mom and Melissa J, I know what you are saying. And I agree with you that there are parents out there who limit their kids so much that the kids don't get to do much of anything, out of fear. I think it's sad for anyone to be raised under the influence of that much fear.

  12. There is a study done by the Army around World War II. They assumed, like we still do for whatever bizarre reason, that having a strict childhood would best prepare soldiers to handle the trauma of living through war. To their complete surprise, they found the opposite. Those soldiers who had the warmest, most loving childhoods were the most prepared and able to cope with the stress.

    I think it's been more or less proven that stressful situations lead to the release of stress hormones. Given enough stressful situations, these increased levels of stress hormones become permanent and cause all sorts of problems with being able to deal with life. More stress = less able to deal with later stress.

  13. @afamilyofmyown, Thanks for that. I want to go search for that study. It makes total sense that warm and happy childhoods would prepare people for struggles in adulthood! I have no clue why anyone would think otherwise, and yet so many people don't get it!!