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Exceptionalism

Parents know that one of their jobs is to protect their child from pain. Some misguided parents morph this laudable goal into attempts to foster continuous happiness upon their children. Not a good idea.

My readers already know there are five things no parent has the power to do. No matter how loving and devoted you are you cannot make your child eat, poop, fall asleep, be happy, or grow up the way you dream about. Why? Because his or her digestion, sleep, happiness, and future all belong to your child not to you.

What parents can do is facilitate healthy eating, toilet training, and good sleep habits. As for happiness, none of us can really make another happy. We can do things the other person likes but that person owns feelings, moods, and emotions that we do not.

Alas, some parents today try so hard to make their children happy and keep them from any adversity that they inadvertently handicap their child. Psychologist and parent Lisa Damour wrote about this (Don’t Make your Children the Exception to Every Rule) in a New York Times parenting blog about childhood happiness and adult well-being.

What traits do we see in children who go on to become happy adults? “Children who are industrious, orderly, and have good self -control are more likely than their careless or undisciplined peers to grow into happy adults.” She adds that well-being in adults “…centers on health, relationships, and a sense of mastery in one’s chosen pursuits.”

Damour tells of a university student in her class who plagiarized a paper. When confronted with this, the student left “…and could not have been out of the building before my desk phone rang. It was her father …threatening legal action.” As Damour notes, “In rushing to the rescue, the father was most likely undermining what he was aiming to protect: his daughter’s future well-being.”

Some parents feel they must protect their child from failing a class or not getting the lead in the play or not becoming the captain of the team. These parents rush to school to argue about a failing grade or their kid’s position on a school sports team. Damour calls such behaviors (and the father’s threat to sue) exceptionalism her term for “…the belief that rules or conventions are to be observed only when convenient…”

All parents want the same thing. They want their children to grow up to be successful adults who enjoy well-being. But it turns out that many parents do not understand the correlation between conscientiousness in childhood and well-being in adulthood. Nor do parents grasp that the more they give their child or use their influence the less children learn about how to achieve on their own.

Similarly many parents and teachers continue to misunderstand the meaning of self-esteem. As I have written before the best way to understand self-esteem is to visualize it as a bridge held up by two pillars both of which are essential. The first pillar is the unconditional love from parents that enables the child to realize “I am loved.” The second pillar is a sense of competency which gives the child the inner strength that comes from knowing, “I can do it by myself!” The “bridge” is weakened when parents overpraise or parents and teachers praise for unpraiseworthy work.

How do parents evolve from the ones who provide everything an infant needs 24-7 to parents who understand the importance of the child developing competency, self-control, conscientiousness, and the ability to postpone gratification? Slowly, in concert with the child’s development. (See ParenTip on Overparenting.)

Briefly when parents OVERPROTECT a toddler or teen, OVERINDULGE a child habitually, or become OVERINVOLVED with their child’s schoolwork or friends, they can interfere with the child’s development and maturation. They usurp the child’s understanding about consequences and self-responsibility by taking over and try to fix things.

Overparenting starts out as good parenting carried out by conscientious parents who want to meet their child’s every need. But some parents do not develop along with the child. They continue their “good parenting” long after the child needs it. They are thinking short term instead of long term.

Parents, let me suggest you work backwards from your real goal which is to raise your child to be a competent, responsible, adult and a concerned citizen. It takes a long time for this to happen. Start when your child is young by teaching concepts of consequences, conscientiousness, and concern for others. Enjoy the journey…even the bumps in the road… along with the child.

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