How come so many children of well-off, attentive, and conscientious parents are growing up into emotionally fragile and narcissistic adults whose dominant feelings are ones of emptiness, confusion, and anxiety? This is the question at the center of the cover article for the Atlantic Monthly’s July/August “Ideas” issue. Entitled “How to Land Your Child in Therapy” and written by a psychologist and mother named Lori Gottlieb, the article argues that in their attempt to provide kids with a perfectly happy childhood, well-meaning parents are depriving their children of the kinds of failures and discomforts necessary for learning resilience, independence, and self-confidence. As happiness cannot be a constant state – it, like all other emotions, is only understood in comparison to all one’s other feelings – these parents, Gottlieb concludes, are preventing their children from acquiring qualities that are vitally important to living a functional and meaningful life.
Gottlieb supports this conclusion by pointing out a range of ways that contemporary parents (of a particular class standing) are paying too much attention to smoothing the ripples in the daily lives of their children. This protective mode begins early with parents swooping in to help a fallen toddler before they even start to cry. It moves on to intervening in the negotiations of preschoolers to insure a parental interpretation of fairness even after the kids who were quarreling have worked things out to their own satisfaction. It spikes with the placing of kids in noncompetitive sports leagues where no one (officially) keeps score.
As these children age, their parents constantly tell them how special they are and rarely offer a meaningful evaluation of their own capacities. They become the center of all family activity with mom and dad shuttling them from place to place and running back home when they forget to turn off their laptop. The product of this kind of attention is a blissfully/ignorantly happy child who moves into adulthood with an overwhelming sense of entitlement and a critical lack of functional resiliency. This “overinvestment” of modern parents in their children, writes Gottlieb, is contributing to a “burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids.”
An obvious question that arises from this assessment is: why are we (and both Gottlieb and I consciously include ourselves in this group) parents going to such ends with our children? Gottlieb and all the experts she quotes believe that modern parents are, at one level or another, using their children to address their own emotional issues. Whether this is the absence of other meaningful relationships, a desire to find some avenue for outstanding achievement, or to overcorrect for what they see as their own deficiencies, modern parents are, Gottlieb argues, often crossing the line between “selflessness (making our kids happy) and selfishness (making ourselves happy).”
This line, of course, is a very difficult one to negotiate. Gottlieb herself notes with a touch of bewilderment how she and other experts find themselves experiencing the same inclinations with their own children that they criticize in others. As Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist at Harvard told her, “I’m about to become an empty-nester and sometimes I feel like I’d burn my kids’ college applications just to have somebody to hang around with.”
Ultimately, though, Gottlieb declares that there is a fundamental immaturity at work in their behavior that overinvested parents need to deal with. “Maybe,” she writes, “we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do.” “Our children,” says Wendy Mogul, another expert quoted in the article, “are not our masterpieces.”
It seems to me that the diagnosis of parental immaturity and, more importantly, the idea that we parents need to grow up overlook an important quality embedded in the modern relationship between parent and child. In the agricultural era preceding and overlapping with the industrial revolution, procreation carried with it a certain economic logic. While each new child represented another mouth to feed, it also added another pair of hands to do chores, gather food, herd animals, etc. Given the prevalence of large families during this period, I feel it’s safe to assume that on balance the production of children added slightly more to the family economy than their consumption took away. I think it is also safe to assume that until the advent and widespread acceptance of child labor laws, this economic logic remained an important influence during the industrial era as well. Add into these calculations the need for continued familial care as parents aged, and the rationale for having children certainly extended beyond a mere biological impetus.
Those rationales no longer exist. Having a child in twenty-first century America is an act that places a significant drain on a couple’s resources. To start with, you’re looking at almost two decades of feeding, clothing, educating, entertaining, and insuring this child. Then, if you’re lucky, you get to pay for college. It all costs a lot of money. And with retirement funds, Social Security, Medicare, and the cultural push to maintain an independent household in one’s golden years, children no longer bear the type of caregiving responsibilities for their parents that they used to. It all means that, from a logical perspective, the costs of having a child in this day and age far outweigh the quantifiable benefits.
This reality means that for a great many people the choice to have a child emerges from a largely emotional motivation. In deciding to bear a child, these parents seek to obtain something meaningful and ineffable, an experience that makes the economic costs of the endeavor unimportant. Perhaps this makes parents ‘immature,’ but it fundamentally cannot be any other way. The emotional ‘overinvestment’ of parents is embedded in that relationship from the beginning. You can’t ‘grow-up’ and change it.
And the decision aspect of all of this should not be underestimated. With the development of a pill for birth control in 1960 and the subsequent proliferation and normalization of pharmaceutical contraception, any biological impetus that might be seen as driving procreation can be largely subverted. This disjuncture between sex and reproduction (at least in populations with access to decent health care) has made having a child that much more of a considered choice. In so many more cases now than in earlier eras, childbearing is a project that a couple decides to take on, not one that they happen to fall into.
What I guess I am arguing here is that I find it unfair and unhelpful to condescendingly urge hyper-invested parents to “grow up” in their relationships with their children. In that framework, the only thing one can do that would pass for actual ‘maturity’ is to not have children at all. While this would certainly solve the problem of self-entitled teacups (if they really are that much of a problem), I don’t think that is the kind of change Gottlieb has in mind.
Plus, it is not hard to find other factors that might explain, and provide avenues for influencing, the proliferation of “burgeoning” narcissists. For one thing, there is an awful lot of money to be made from perfection-seeking parents and fragile, self-centered children, particularly in an economy that is more and more oriented towards providing services of every stripe and color. And, aren’t the feelings of emptiness, confusion, and anxiety exactly what advertisers are trying to provoke? In a society where advertising saturates just about every possible experience, why would we expect people to be happy, confident, and fulfilled? I’m not sure it matters what kind of parents one has when the predominant themes of so many images we encounter on a daily basis are that we need something or that we are missing out on something. In light of this bombardment, it seems incredible to believe that people might think about themselves in any other way.
Perhaps a fuller recognition of the effects these forces are having on ourselves and our children would be a more effective start towards keeping all of us out of therapy.