Like most five year olds my son hates to lose. Whether it be a board game or a sporting contest, if he’s not winning he’s not happy. For this reason, and I’m guessing like most parents, most of the time we let him win so the experience stays enjoyable for everyone. After all, if you can’t be the king of your domain at five when can you be?
However, as he’s getting older I have started to change my philosophy slightly and every once in a while won’t skew the results in his favour. This always leads to the predictable dramatics, but I felt it was important he started to learn the grand old chestnut ‘Its not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.’ And now, after reading a fascinating article the other day, I am even more determined to let him lose occasionally, as it seems winning can do more harm than I ever expected.
In The Atlantic article
Psychologist Lori Gottlieb was perplexed when she found a number of her patients were experiencing feelings of unexplained sadness, despite having wonderful childhoods, loving engaged parents and essentially ‘nothing to be unhappy about.’ As Ms Gottlieb explained,
“Here I was, seeing the flesh-and-blood results of the kind of parenting that my peers and I were trying to practice with our own kids, precisely so that they wouldn’t end up on a therapist’s couch one day. We were running ourselves ragged in a herculean effort to do right by our kids—yet what seemed like grown-up versions of them were sitting in our offices, saying they felt empty, confused, and anxious.”
So she began to look into why this was occurring and was surprised by her findings. She came to realise that these parents were possibly ‘too attuned’ with their kids. That their constant efforts in shielding their children from harm and unhappiness had actually prevented them from developing the coping mechanism to deal with the slightest thing going wrong. As fellow psychologist Paul Bohn goes on to explain,
“Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But this actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it.”
As Oprah would say, what an ‘Ah ha’ moment! Really it seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but when your instinct as a parent is to always prevent them from harm, both physical and emotional, it does require a shift in thinking. However, reading on, the case for doing so becomes ever clearer. Dan Kindlon, another child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, explains why it’s so important that children develop “psychological immunity.”
“It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” he explained. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.’”
I’m sure reading that makes all of us parents think of a moment where we have given in to our child’s request simply to stop their whining, to make them happy, or to make our own lives easier. But in doing so it seems we could be creating a generation of adults who never hear ‘no’ and thus fall to pieces the first time something doesn’t go their way.
The article also states that our current focus on ‘praise based’ parenting is causing major problems and contributing to the increase in narcissistic adults. Parents today, myself included, are often focused on building their children’s self esteem by telling them how special and talented they are. But rather than making them feel good about themselves, this could contribute to them thinking they are better than everybody else. It also has the effect of diluting the impact when they actually do achieve something significant.
These days it seems everyone gets a prize for trying. Parents are asking teachers not to mark in red pen because it damages their child’s confidence, kids in sporting teams all get a trophy because singling out the ‘best and fairest’ makes the others feel less worthy. Some schools in the US are even banning keeping score all together, not wanting to focus on who won and who lost. And we parents are so quick to fight our children’s battles, we can’t even let our toddlers squabble over a toy without stepping in to sort it out.
But you know what, in life there are winners and losers. Sometimes you succeed at things and sometimes you fail. Sometimes you get what you want and sometimes you don’t. Some days you’re happy and some days you feel like crap. And none of it kills us. Yet by letting our children think otherwise we are actually setting them up for the exact unhappiness we are trying to prevent.
For me, this is fascinating stuff and will definitely effect how I parent from now on. I will still tell my children they are wonderful, but I will temper it with a few more ‘no’s’ and a few less wins. And I will hope that it prevents them from one day ending up on the therapist’s couch, talking about me!
You can find the whole article here
. What do you think of this parenting advice? Do you use praise to parent your children and do you find it works? Are you guilty of not saying no enough? Do you find the way you parent is very different than how you were raised? I'd love to hear your thoughts....