Anthropology researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have been studying American middle class families and are reporting some data that should surprise no one: We Americans focus on our children by indulging them—namely, expecting they contribute very little to the family and indulging them in lots of ways, like tying their shoes (even when they’re old enough to do it themselves), fetching their toys and talking to them in soft, soothing babyish tones even when they are closer to being adolescents than toddlers.
Ten years ago, the team at UCLA recorded video of 32 Southern California families around the clock, 7-days-a-week. They’ve been analyzing that video ever since—looking for words, facial expressions, emotions and other data that might go unnoticed in more cursory viewings.
One of the major conclusions of the researchers is that the families focus mainly on their children—but not in a way designed to help those children stand on their own two feet. Instead, the focus seems to be on treating them almost like toddlers, fostering dependency on parents long after it’s wise to do so.
This is a psychological prescription for disaster exactly in line with President Obama’s prescription for psychologically hobbling adults. It encourages that poisonous blend of narcissism and lack of autonomy that deprives human beings of feeling competent and powerful and, instead, teaches them to always look for a parental figure (father, mother or the state) to feed them, clothe them, give them an allowance and, otherwise, infantilize them.
The reason parents end up running around the house like serfs to their own offspring, not to mention applauding too loudly and too long for their kids’ mediocre efforts on sports fields or auditorium stages, is that it feels good. That’s right.
It feels good to compliment someone, because it makes them happy—if only transiently.
It feels good to show a child that you “love her” two dozen times a day by bringing her food and clearing her dishes and hanging her hastily-conceived artwork on the refrigerator and adding more clothes to her messy closets, then rearranging them.
It’s reassuring to those parents who need to be needed and whose own self-esteem is so fragile that feeling like they are linked at the hip with their children makes them forget all about completing the unfinished business of becoming complete individuals themselves. It is, in fact, almost effortless to cajole and cater to kids, compared to the much harder work of carving character into kids by insisting they carry their own weight and think their own thoughts and even be willing to accept that others will challenge them, or find fault with them, from time to time.
So much of being a really good parent focused on raising really strong, independent kids relies on not giving into one’s instincts and taking the easy way out. It’s so much easier, after all, to go grab your son’s knapsack before school than to tell him five times that he should go get it in his room.
It’s certainly much easier than letting him be late for the bus because he hasn’t gotten the knapsack in time. It’s three times easier than letting him go to school without his knapsack because he’s burned through so much time that there literally isn’t a moment to spare before the bus rolls away.
It’s so much easier to stop your conversation with an adult and listen to the news your child is just dying to tell you about a neighborhood football game. Because telling your child he will have to wait to speak could make him feel transiently sad. It could embarrass him slightly in front of the other adult who he has just interrupted. He might not adore you in that instant as much as you long to be adored at every instant.
Good parenting—like every good relationship—relies on telling your kids the truth, doing the tough things that build them up for real, and avoiding the easy things that make them lean against you—all smiles and hugs (which really do look and feel wonderful)—for support in a world you have suggested is too tough for them to navigate on their own, ever.
Parents are, in essence, their children’s first therapists. And a good therapist isn’t a glad-hander or a buddy or a cheerleader. A good therapist can’t afford to do what feels good and let time pass effortlessly. Because it just slips away, without any growth being accomplished.
He doesn’t just smile and celebrate characteristics of a patient that actually should be opposed, then changed.
He doesn’t hesitate to challenge the perspectives or thought patterns of patients who aren’t thinking clearly.
He doesn’t hesitate to identify laziness or jealousy or greed or egoism as exactly that—and say it quite directly.
Every one of the therapist’s glances, words and acts has to be honed for maximal therapeutic effect on the individual who is looking to grow. It’s exhausting work. It’s supposed to be. And parenting should be, too. Otherwise, it is no better than a drug—injecting ourselves with the warm fuzzies of our kids’ needing us immeasurably and infinitely, because they never get to be completely themselves.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.