Driving yourself crazy trying to make your kids happy isn’t working for either of you.
I’m scrolling mindlessly through my Facebook feed when I notice a post from my friend Anna, a wonderful and devoted stay-at-home mom to her toddler daughter Lily, the kind of mother whose frequent enriching craft projects and creative Halloween costumes tend to inspire vague feelings of inadequacy. Her status update says:
“Today I learnt a valuable lesson. Lily wanted to play but I had to clean up. So I said ‘wait a minute.’ But then she cried and I realized that I had given her the message that I thought cleaning was more important than she was. I will never, ever do that again. From now on, I will never make her wait, and will always put her first, no matter what.”
And then it hit me. My generation of parents is officially crazy. There’s nothing like seeing your own foibles magnified by someone else taking them just one tiny step further. Because although this is an extreme example, I have a lot of these tendencies too.
At some deep level, I am terrified that if I fail to maximize on every tiny happiness opportunity for my kids, they will grow up to be Not Happy. That their future memoirs chronicling their mother’s failure to give adequate praise to their cotton-ball Easter bunnies will turn up in the “Painful Lives” section of the bookstore, next to the satanic abuse ones.
As soon as my first son was born, I instantly contracted every pathology in the Diagnostic Manual of Helicopter Parenting. I exhausted myself trying to optimize every aspect of his life. My voice took on a bizarrely overenunciated, syruped-up register I had never known myself capable of, somewhere between wartime BBC announcer and Julie Andrews, giving him a continuous running commentary of the tedious minutiae of everything we did.
If I stuck him in his bouncer and took five minutes to check Facebook, I would then spend the next 45 minutes compounding the problem by Googling variations on: “Emotional effects of caregiver neglect” and scour his behavior, hawklike for the signs. In short, I drove myself (and doubtless everyone around me) absolutely crazy. And I wasn’t an outlier in my friendship group. A friend recently confessed that when her daughter was a baby, so concerned were she and her husband to provide her with every comfort, and spare her any effort or hardship, that they used to actually suck their daughter’s thumb for her when she went to sleep, sometimes for up to an hour.
As my two boys grow up, I have continued in this exhausting quest to make their every moment magical and enriching, to smooth over their every trauma. It can sometimes feel like dealing with the queen, who as urban myth has it, grew up believing that the entire world smells of fresh paint. Somehow, the role of the parent has become to walk in front of our children sanitizing, reframing, and removing potential negative encounters, rather than allowing them to experience the normal ups and downs of life and then helping them deal with the consequences.
Buoyed up by a multibillion dollar parenting industry, the expectation of what parents should be doing in service of their children’s happiness has been constantly inflating.
Time use surveys show that a mother now spends an average of four extra hours with her children every week compared to her 1965 counterpart, while college-educated mothers put in an extranine hours, despite being far more likely to work outside the home.
This new culture of parenting zealotry almost certainly goes some way toward explaining why alarge body of research shows that in America, people who don’t have children are happier than those who do.
Oddly — or not oddly at all for those of us who have spent the past hour stuck in traffic with a toddler shouting “poo-poo nugget” on endless repeat — study after study has shown that people with children are less happy than the childless (or childfree as they call themselves, while ordering another round of margaritas).
And the most intense parents are the unhappiest of all. As one study showed, the more “intense” a mother’s approach to her children, the unhappier she becomes, with the most intense mothers experiencing a level of depression more than three times that in the general population.
Like many mothers, I would be willing to take a hit on my own happiness if it were to guarantee my children’s. But it seems that these new parenting norms aren’t doing our kids any real favors either. The first generation of children to be raised in this oddly intense way — partially thanks to the spread of Dr. Sears’s attachment parenting theories in the early nineties — are now of college or recent graduate age. But research suggests that they are actually less happy and resilient than previous generations.
Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at the University of San Diego who has analyzed the results of standardized psychometric tests given to college and high school students going back to the 1930s, claims that even controlling for confounding factors, including the likelihood that modern-day students are likely to feel less of a stigma about reporting mental health symptoms, the average high school student now has similar levels of anxiety to the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s. Meanwhile, college counselors are warning of a mental health crisis among current college students, with many blaming the culture of overparenting for a lack of independence and resilience.
The driving hope of a generation of parents, that by our own fevered effort we could eliminate negativity for our children and guarantee their happiness, appears to have backfired.
We tend to feel as though the more we “do” as parents to make our children happy — the more Play-doh rolling and cupcake baking, “play narrating” and Jurassic era explaining and trauma smoothing — the “better” we become. But we are going too far. When it comes to our children’s happiness (and our own), perhaps less is more, and we would do well to back off a bit, to let them find their own path. Which I’m taking as my cue to stick on Paw Patrol and to go take a bath.