Like so many important things, parenting is something you learn to do in retrospect, which makes it a wild ride for child and parent as life is lived forward. This means most children have to forgive their parents for their mistakes. Recently I was reminded that there is such a thing as loving your children too much, or at least trying to always shield your child from unhappiness. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Therapist Lori Gottlieb reports about some perplexing patients she had.
. . . I met a patient I’ll call Lizzie. She had come in, she told me, because she was “just not happy.” And what was so upsetting, she continued, was that she felt she had nothing to be unhappy about. She reported that she had “awesome” parents, two fabulous siblings, supportive friends, an excellent education, a cool job, good health, and a nice apartment. She had no family history of depression or anxiety. So why did she have trouble sleeping at night? Why was she so indecisive, afraid of making a mistake, unable to trust her instincts and stick to her choices? Why did she feel “less amazing” than her parents always told her she was? Why did she feel “like there’s this hole inside” her? (“How To Land Your Kid In Therapy,” The Atlantic, July/August 2011, 66.)
When I first read the paragraph above, I thought of Blaise Pascal’s (1623-1662) observation that we all have an “infinite abyss (that) can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.” No matter how good life gets, our life is still incomplete without God. But that wasn’t the point that Gottlieb was making. Indeed, we do not know if “Lizzie” is a believer or not.
What Gottlieb is saying is that when parents focus too much on a child’s happiness, we actually hinder their ability to experience happiness as an adult. She points out that modern social science has reached the same conclusion. Gottlieb writes:
“Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College told me. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.” It’s precisely this goal, though, that many modern parents focus on obsessively — only to see it backfire. Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I begin to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults? (Gottlieb, 67.)
Gottlieb also quotes Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA, who believes that:
. . . many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment — “anything less than pleasant,” . . . with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong. (Gottlieb, 67.)
It is interesting that the Bible has little to say about happiness. It does talk about a joy that is a fruit of the spirit, a fruit that grows best in lives of obedience. So instead of calling his spiritual children to be happy, Paul the spiritual father says:
For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 NIV.)
Paul the father does comfort and encourage, but his focus is on urging the Thessalonian Christians to “live lives worthy of God.”
I have often found it hard not to protect my children from even “mild discomfort, anxiety or disappointment.” I guess I was struggling with the fact that they lost their birth mother to cancer early in life, and another mother through divorce. I felt that they have had more than their fair share of suffering. Perhaps I projected my guilt on them. It was only later in my parenting that I tried to help them grow to be more emotionally resilient but sometimes I still lapsed into my overprotective mode. I wish parenting came with more explicit manuals.
Last Saturday was a very difficult one for Bernice and me. Son Andrew had asked what we thought of a public rally to demand for cleaner and fairer elections. The government had hinted at all sorts of harsh measures against any who took part. We took the opportunity to reaffirm a family value: that we act out of conviction and not out of fear, but the call was his. He decided to go and was in a group that was tear gassed repeatedly. We did not know this at first but we were very concerned and prayed continually for his safety and for the safety of all those involved in the demonstration. We were relieved when we heard that he was back safe and gave thanks to God.
We love our children and it breaks our hearts to see them hurt in anyway. But we realise that we need to allow them to live their own adventures, to experience their own tears and joys. We will always be here for them but we need to release them so that they can be the men that God wants them to be, men who are anchored in Christ and able to take the ups and downs of life this side of heaven. It’s the loving thing to do.