A recent letter to Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax shares a couple’s concern about their daughter, who they describe as a “mean girl.” The couple claim that they have done everything to help and encourage their daughter, and have made her the “absolute highest priority” in their lives. In response, Hax gives this piece of advice that I would like to elaborate on: “Don’t let her keep thinking that you, her friends, and her world are there for her.”
But, why does a girl who is so beloved of her parents turn out to be a bully and cause problems for those around her? Shouldn’t we make our children our very “highest priority”? There are popular parenting methods that suggest we never turn our children down when they want something, never say no to them even when they misbehave, and always tell them that they are amazing in every way. On the surface, this type of parenting practice (often called unconditional love, or unconditional positive regard) seems like the right thing. However, I am going to warn you now, if you really practice this kind of parenting, you are in for trouble.
The famous psychologist, Alfred Adler, warned parents about this very parenting method, saying that it could result in a child’s development (or lack thereof) of social interest or social feeling. What Adler means when he talks about “social interest” is the desire in a person to benefit the people around them, to improve the lives of others in their families and communities. Adler argues that parents who meet every need of their children and never allow them to be disappointed, are doing a great disservice to both the children and society as a whole.
This advice might be quite hard for the over-pampering parent to digest. But while there are many concerns that these parents might have, I have chosen just three to address here.
1. I want to give my children everything they want.
Some parents feel like it is their duty to fulfill all (or most) of the wants of their children. Sometimes it is because the parents themselves lacked things as a child, and want to make up for their own loss. Some believe that their children will love and appreciate them more if they give the children everything they want. These parents never say no to a child’s bad behavior or many wants, because they believe that saying no is what bad parents do.
A three-year-old child can dominate these kinds of parents simply by demanding to use their iPhone. The parents just give in, because they don’t like to see their child disappointed or suffering (or they just can’t handle the tantrum).
The problem with this kind of parenting is that the real world simply does not work this way—where all demands are automatically met, just because a child wishes them to be. If a child is raised thinking that all of their wants should be fulfilled and all of their behavior should be tolerated, they are in for some very difficult years once they leave home. As adults, we know very well that the world will not provide us with all we want. We simply will be disappointed from time to time. And employers, friends, and spouses will not treat all of our misbehavior with a smile and a kind word (sadly, even adults sometimes learn this lesson too late).
So what are parents to do? Let your children be disappointed.
A few times when I have disappointed one of my children by not giving them what they want, they have said, “This is the WORST DAY OF MY LIFE!” When they say this, I pat myself on the back, and say, “Good Dad!” If the WORST day of my child’s life is made so simply because I wouldn’t buy them something or let them do what they wanted, it means that my children lives are pretty amazing.
This is not to say that we should have our children go without necessities of life. Of course you should meet those needs. But certainly toys, iPhones, and Xboxes are not necessities. It is good for your children to not get what they want sometimes. And when the child’s needs are trumped by the needs of a parent or sibling, the child will learn to develop empathy and awareness of the needs of others.
2. I don’t want my child to have to struggle.
The desire to keep your children from having to struggle is in some ways quite noble. We don’t like to see our children get hurt or have struggles in their relationships with others. It makes sense that we would want to fix their problems and make their lives easier. Some parents even think it necessary to intervene when it comes to situations at school with their children’s teachers and coaches, and attempt to keep their children from facing consequences for their actions.
What is the result if we keep our children from struggling? Again, by doing this, we keep children from learning to deal with normal life. Whether or not we like to admit it, Buddha was right when he claimed, “Life is suffering.” And Adler teaches that parents who do not teach children how to deal with struggles, those parents will “lead the child to regard himself as the center of events, and to feel that all other situations and persons are hostile to him.” Such a child will see the world as a hostile place as they grow up, because no one is stepping in to solve their problems.
3. I want my child to think that he is the most important, amazing person in the world.
This idea is a particular problem of American parents. We live in culture hyper-focused on the self—self-esteem, self-love, self-actualization. We think that we must engender this self-love in our children, push them to see themselves as wonderful, amazing, and successful in every way. We give medals just for showing up to sports teams, so that everyone feels special.
What could be wrong with this?
The problem with encouraging self-love is that we give children the impression that they are the only beings in the world who matter. We teach them that their happiness, their pleasure, and their successes are the only things that count toward having a good life. This kind of attitude keeps them from ever developing the “social feeling,” which Adler claims is the hallmark of a healthy personality. This is the problem the parents I mentioned at the beginning are facing: the over-indulgence they have given their child has led her to lack compassion and empathy for others—to become what they call a “mean girl”.
I am certainly not advocating that we spend a lot of time harping on our child’s faults. But we can spend much more time helping our children to see the needs of others and to find ways to benefit from helping those around them. If you offer your child opportunities to sacrifice their needs in order to help others, I think you will be surprised at the capacity for kindness in children. We know that the joys we experience in our lives come from the capacity to love and be loved.
Adler teaches how important “social feeling” really is to our community. He says, “Everything we call a mistake shows a want of social feeling. All errors in childhood and in adult life, all faulty character traits in the family, at school, in life, in relationships with other persons, in work, and in love originate in a lack of social feeling.”
Allow your children to struggle. Allow them to be disappointed. Say no. Give them opportunities to sacrifice their own needs and desires for the benefit of others. Children need you to help them learn these lessons—and to learn them young—so that they can move forward in life.