'Too Little or Too Much'
I recently read Jeannette Walls' gripping memoir, The Glass Castle and found myself preoccupied with her story for weeks afterwards. For those of you who haven't read or heard of it, it chronicles Ms. Walls' strange upbringing by what could be described, at best, as bright and eccentric parents, but more accurately as selfish, negligent and dysfunctional ones. Despite humble beginnings and unimaginable hardships, Walls emerges as a strong, intelligent, creative, resourceful person who becomes a well-respected author and journalist.
In thinking about the book afterwards, I marvelled at the capacity for resilience and survival that we humans possess; I recalled numerous famous people who had overcome adversity to become bright, independent, and successful leaders and achievers (Oprah Winfrey immediately springs to mind); and I was reminded of Nietzsche's expression, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
I also thought about the large number of us who, in the name of good parenting, have done the opposite of Ms. Walls' parents. Many of us have become hyper-vigilant, hovering over our offspring in an effort to protect them from harm, prevent hardships and rescue them when we can't protect and prevent. We have made ourselves available to our children whether they have needed us to be there or not. And in so doing, we may have inadvertently hindered our children's abilities to learn some basic survival skills.
In a world where so many decisions are based on avoiding a potential threat, we may be raising generations of children that are not only fearful, but also unprepared for what is thrown at them. While our offspring may feel loved and protected, they may lack the ability to cope with life's challenges or to easily bounce back from its disappointments. Fearful of venturing out on their own, some may maintain a dependence on their families for years beyond what used to be the norm. Lacking resilience, others may develop symptoms of anxiety and depression, reflected in the growing statistics of younger patients with these diagnoses. A number may turn to drugs or alcohol to help bolster their confidence. While these outlets are not new, they do seem to be occurring with greater frequency, in ever-increasing numbers and amongst younger people.
Of course, not all children that survive the Walls' lifestyle emerge as well adjusted as Jeannette and there is certainly plenty of evidence of anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse amongst families such as hers. In addition, there are many other variables, such as societal and cultural influences, that contribute to the adults that our children become that we have little control over nor are responsible for. But if we are noticing signs that our children are becoming overly dependent on us, we may not only want to think about doing less, but also rethink our definition of what makes a good parent.
While I am not suggesting that we adopt a laissez-faire parenting style, I do think there may be a happy medium between the parent who does too little and the one who does too much. As difficult and strange as it may feel, we may need to see our children fall and not rush to pick them up; to allow them to make and fix their mistakes; to resist the temptation to bail them out; to give them responsibilities around the house and have them do their own homework; to ask them to pay for the extras that they want but don't need; and to offer them challenges that they can figure out on their own. By giving our children freer rein but within limits, we show that we trust and have faith in them to make good choices and we help them to develop resilience and independence.
If you would like to rethink your definition of good parenting, and need some help with doing so, please give me a call.
Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”
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