Thursday, June 16, 2011

"You Can Do Anything You Want." Except That.

This is the second in a series of posts about an article from The Atlantic by Lori Gottlieb, called "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy." In the first one, I argued against the premise of the article, which seems to be that if your child ever goes to therapy, even if he only has wonderful things to say about you, you might be a failure as a parent.

Today I want to address an idea that is often expressed in our society, and is perpetuated by articles like this. I touched on this topic once before, in The Myth Of Permissive Parents. Here is a quote found in Gottlieb's article, from Barry Schwarz, a Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College:
Most parents tell kids, ‘You can do anything you want, you can quit any time, you can try this other thing if you’re not 100 percent satisfied with the other.’
THIS IS A MYTH! It shocks me every time I hear it. This is NOT what most parents say. Let me alter it slightly for you with some of my own additions in bold: 

Most parents tell kids, ‘You can do anything you want when you are not in school or doing homework or chores, you can quit anything except for school any time unless I already paid for whatever it is, you can try this other thing if you’re not 100 percent satisfied with the other, unless the thing you are not satisfied with is your school.’
Ah, now that rings true. Sounds a lot less "permissive" and free that way, doesn't it?

Gottlieb also brings this up when she talks about some of her patients in therapy, saying:
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.
She goes on to describe several ways these parents had been involved in the lives of their children, including four school-related ones: driving carpools, helping with homework, hiring tutors, intervening in cases of bullying. So when was the freedom to find themselves given? Certainly not during the school year. Could they really do "anything they wanted?" Clearly not. This seems so obvious to me. Yet the conclusion Gottlieb wants us to draw is that the parents gave too much freedom, too much choice.

This is not freedom (source)
School is just a given. It is rarely questioned or even considered as part of the problem for our children in pretentious articles like Gottlieb's. Articles that tell us we might be feeling empty and adrift because our  parents didn't let us suffer enough, were "too attuned" to our needs, gave us too many choices when we were kids. Whatever freedom given to us outside of school could have been too much.

But school is a huge part of a child's life. It is a confining place, where there is little to no freedom. Where individuality is not valued. Where all people are measured by the same yardstick. Where only certain pursuits are worthy, and only certain talents are valued. 

In all this talk about "finding ourselves," do we ever consider why we are getting lost in the first place? Isn't it possible that school has something to do with this?

Nope, let's just ignore that giant elephant in the room. It's just easier to blame the parents.


I am NOT saying that school is the only thing to blame for the empty feelings of our nation's youth. I just want to know why we don't consider it as PART of the problem. Why is that giant chunk of our childhoods completely ignored when we look at the amount of freedom our parents gave us?


More from me on Gottlieb’s article:

Part 2: "You Can Do Anything You Want." Except That.


  1. As a kid it always frustrated me: my parents' talk that they want me to do what I love and what makes me happy, and at the same time assuming that going to school and doing well was THE way to be happy and fulfilled. It still strikes me as such hypocrisy. Giving children the illusion of choice and support in their choices when in reality there was no real choices at all.
    And if School and Ambitions did not make you happy, then the problem was you, NEVER outside circumstances.
    You are right, there are no permissive parents. At least I have never heard of any when I was growing up. Not even of one.

  2. I agree completely Marta...
    My parents always encouraged us to do whatever we wanted and that we could be successful, but if that was leaving school then it was out of the question. This statement in particular struck me:

    "And if School and Ambitions did not make you happy, then the problem was you, NEVER outside circumstances."

    Yes, they always said it was OUR problem, never the school's. It's sad to see that society can't look at things from a different perspective.

  3. Thanks for your perspectives on Gottleib's article. I was disturbed by it on so many levels. It was long, tangential, and logically incoherent, and filled with other myths like you have pointed out.

    One of the myths about human nature that got to me was the assertion that we ought to be content and satisfied (at least complacent) with what's in front of us; to want more signifies that there's something wrong with us (we're narcissistic). But why? What's wrong with wanting more? Don't we always want more?

    I don't know about you, but when I look at myself I see infinite desire. There's nothing on this earth that can fully satisfy me. I can tell myself, "Oh, if I had x, y and z, I would finally be satisfied, finally be perfectly happy" but I know that's not true. I look at the people who do have x, y, and z and it hasn't fulfilled them. I look up at a starry sky and think, "I want it all and I want more!" And yet, I don't find myself on Gottleib's couch, wondering why I'm not happy. I really enjoy life. It doesn't depress me to know my desire is for the infinite. When I feel that twinge of disappointment in acquiring or doing something I really love, I don't think there's something wrong with me, I think I'm human and there is something so great about me that only the infinite can satisfy.

    As I started reading Gottleib's description of her patient's relationship with their parents, I wanted to applaud the parents. I thought it sounded beautiful. They didn't kill their children's spirit. They didn't raise children who are complacent with the status quo. They raised fully human people! (I will say though, as "perfect" as she tried to describe them, I don't fully believe it. They may have very friendly relationships, but that their children feel the need to perform and be happy for their parents' sake suggests that there was/is emotional manipulation going on and the children were not aware.)

    Lastly, the idea that you can be too attuned to your children is asinine. If parents are smothering a child and not letting him grow, they are NOT attuned to their child. If you can't see that your child needs to work something out for herself or handle a frustration on her own, then you're not really attuned to your child.

  4. @Marta and Anonymous, Exactly! Why can't we all see that there is something wrong with the system, instead of blaming problems on the individuals who went through it??

    @Emily, It's good to know you agree. I don't see any problem with wanting more, either. I don't like the idea of "settling," but apparently Gottlieb does. She wrote a whole book about it I guess! Your comment is spot-on. What does "too attuned" even mean? Ridiculous.

  5. As a college prof -- and a mom -- I think Lori Gottleib's latest piece in the Atlantic provides a sensible wake-up call for uber-parents who do too much for their children, all in the interests of making them "happy" and protecting them from failure. In our new book, "Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career -- and Life -- That's Right for you" we focus on the results of that kind of over-parenting on today's women: analysis paralysis, second-guessing and grass-is greener syndrome. It's a generational malise, this pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and overwhelm, the feeling that no matter what they choose in terms of their life path, it is never enough.
    Of course, it's not just well-meaning parents that are to blame: It's societal norms and workplace cultures, too, that have not yet caught up to the new reality that women now make up over half of the workplace. More here:

  6. Why is being content with your life a bad thing? So since I don't have any ambitions about what I need to do to make myself even happier I am just "settling" for what I have? Does that make me worthless or sad? I had no idea I was so sad, I guess I was too busy actually enjoying what I have.

    I don't see a problem wanting more either as long as the pursuit itself is making your unhappy? Or you have some distorted view of what happiness should look like. I didn't disagree with the whole article but their were definitely some authors who made more sense then others. Some seemed to be talking out of their 'you know what'.

    Finally I don't think school made these young adults unhappy or at the very least can't be assumed to be the problem. I never felt that school stifled me at all. I even loved some of my classes like Shop and Robotics in middle school. In high school I was able to take CAD, architectural drawing and more. I liked school and don't remember asking to stay home ever. I liked the kids, I liked the classes and I loved playing on the sports teams. I was not the most popular but I did have friends. You could probably call me a floater, I tended to hang out with all different groups.

    Anyway... I think its fair to look at the parents in most situations since they have the most influence over any child including the decision on how their child will be schooled.

  7. @barbara kelley, Did you read my blog post? I notice you comment on Gottlieb's article, but you didn't really address any of the issues that I brought up here.

    @Melissa J, I wasn't clear in my last comment. I love my life. But the word "settling" makes me think of throwing my hands up and saying "Oh well, I guess this is good enough." And that is not how I feel. I haven't settled for my life, I *choose* my life every day. And when I say "I want more," it's not possessions or riches, it's personal progress. I feel like I try to improve myself and my relationships all the time.

    It's really awesome that you had such a good experience in school. And like I said in the end of the post, I don't blame school for all of my or anyone else's problems, but I do get annoyed when the experts don't even consider it as a possible contributor to unhappiness. School definitely contributed to my unhappiness. I was a miserable person through middle and high school. Miserable. And I know lots of other people who had the same experience.

    And yes, the parents are a huge factor in a child's life, but I think we can't look honestly at someone's past unless we talk about their school experience. Lots of parents think they don't have a choice about schooling, and that can be just as limiting as actually not having a choice at all.

  8. Great last comment, Vickie. I agree with you when you said that most parents really have no idea whether there are other options or not.

    Even though I am not a parent, I hadn't heard of unschooling myself until my sister brought it up. Even today when I say the term people do a double-take and most have never heard it before.

  9. @Anonymous, Thanks! Yes, I find that many people don't even know if homeschooling is legal! It would be better if they were aware of other options besides school. Not that everyone should do it, but they should know they have a choice.

  10. Good points. Also, good title (made me giggle).
    The cartoon you included: it's so sad. It made me tear up when I first saw it. I think it's what a "cure for autism" must be like (as an autistic person).
    Maybe I'm the exception to the rule but my parents and a lot of the parents of my friends seem to have restricted their kids' freedom more than the second example. Like putting limits on how long I read in one day, or how long my friend yoyo-ed, or used his toy cars, even if they/I had freetime. Though that could just be an autistic thing, as in people wanting to stop "autistic perseverations" (both of those friends were also on the spectrum).
    I love Calvin and Hobbes. I love the title of your blog. Have you seen the one where Calvin says (approximately): "For show and tell, I have a single snowflake. See how this intricate marvel of nature becomes an ordinary raindrop when it enters the classroom. As the metaphor sinks in, I'll be leaving you drips and going outside." I'd like to hug Calvin. :D Though he'd probably put slugs down my back if I did...