How to Mess Kids Up

Brad M. Griffin | Jul 25, 2011

When does investment become overinvestment? When does support go too far into enabling or actually disabling kids? This is an important question for parents and youth workers alike to wrestle with.

Over the past month, several folks have suggested I read this Atlantic feature, How to Land Your Kid in Therapy. Im going to suggest the same to you. Parent and therapist Lori Gottlieb draws from research and experience to warn us that obsessing with making kids happy leads down a dangerous road. In fact, supporting to the extent that every need is perfectly met may lead to a great relationship with kids on one hand, but incompetence for adult living on the other.

Heres a short video primer interview with expert Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (a great book) summing up growing concerns about overinvesting in kids.

Gottlieb laments that theres a real discomfort with ordinary and average in our culture. Specifically, oversupport misguides how much we want kids to be happy. She writes,

Nowadays, its not enough to be happyif you can be even happier. The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.

This leads to all kinds of anxiety and crash-and-burn when emerging adults begin to realize that despite being protected from unhappiness their whole lives, being told theyre amazing, and never being average at anything, real life is much more of a mixed bag. As it turns out, high self-esteem isnt a good predictor of becoming a content adult. Perseverance, resilience, and being able to test reality lead to more life fulfillment and success.

This reminds me of a great Orange Parents blog post a few months back by Reggie Joiner called How to raise a Jerk. Check out his list and see what you think.

Im always interested when I hear someone say something along the lines of, We all want the best for our kids. As a parent, I actually cringe at this. How do we define best? Does that mean shuttling kids (read: middle/upper-class privileged white kids) to endless activities so they have the best well-rounded portfolio of sports and arts? Does that mean investing in certain schools and/or prep programs to get the best test scores and the best chances at elite college choice?

I dont actually want those bests for my kids. I want to be sure they dont get everything they want or think they need. I want to give them a childhood and adolescence where every minute of their day isnt planned for them. I dont want to pigeonhole them into certain gifts or talents that they show at age 6 that lead them crashing into burnout by high school. I dont want to tell them that You can do/be anything you want because its not exactly true, even wearing their white middle-class badges of privilege.

My kids will probably end up in therapy over all that.

Don’t misunderstand; Im all about support and affirmation, as well as bringing assets into the lives of kids. The basic gist of asset-theory is that more is more. But some of this research raises good questions about whether over-support is as dangerous a form of abandonment as neglect. Especially in the lives of kids from middle and high-income families.

I think this has implications for how we spiritually nurture kids as well. Are we as youth workers or parents working toward a goal of just helping teenagers be happy in Jesus or emotionally connecting with God in some positive way? Or are we content with a little dissonance in the mix? Are we really opening up the whole bag of spirituality to kids, including the dark, scary places and questions that are bound to arise? As we learned through our Sticky Faith project, some research would actually argue that strong, genuine faith must learn to face those places and questions. Doing so in the context of safe relationships makes much more sense than waiting until students leave our community and face a world that turns their faith on its head.

What do you think? How are we messing kids up, and how are we truly setting them up to thrive?

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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