“How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”

My guess is that almost every parent out there worries about screwing up his or her kids. I’m no certainly no different. In fact, I’d be more worried if someone didn’t share this feeling at least to a reasonable degree. In any case, this widespread concern is one of the reasons we’ve been offering the Legacy Series of parenting seminars at The Crossing, the most recent of which interacted with a provocative article from The Atlantic called “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.”

Penned by therapist Lori Gottlieb, the article concentrates on the phenomenon of young men and women with seemingly wonderful backgrounds and parental relationships who nevertheless find their way into counseling for a host of issues, including anxiety, depression, and decision making difficulties. Gottlieb raises the question of whether it’s possible, in some respects at least, for parents to do too much for their children.

Even if you didn’t get the chance to read the article or attend the Legacy seminar (which you can access from this page), I thought it might be worth recapping at least one part of the follow-up discussion we held this past Sunday.

I was struck by an anecdote Gottlieb shared about a youth soccer coach in Washington D.C. As a former college athlete, the coach initially found many of the youth league’s conventions silly. As the article indicates, however, he gradually began to appreciate the system, which includes awarding every kid a trophy and not keeping score during games. “When you get killed and there’s no positive spin, the kids think they’re failures. It damages their self-esteem.”

How to respond to this? A few quick thoughts:

1. The coach in question cast these strategies not only in the light of encouraging healthy self-esteem, but also as steering them away from a selfish, “me generation” attitude. As the article points out, however, it often does just the opposite. Gottlieb explains:

When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for “good tries,” he never gets negative feedback on his performance. (All failures are reframed as “good tries.”) According to [professor of psychology Jean] Twenge, indicators of self-esteem have risen consistently since the 1980s among middle-school, high-school, and college students. But, she says, what starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself—a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism. In fact, rates of narcissism among college students have increased right along with self-esteem.

2. Besides encouraging self-esteem, is there anything else behind our desire to shield kids from failures and disappointments? Well, probably. On the negative side, our kids are a reflection on us, and we certainly don’t like feeling unsuccessful!

3. On the positive side: perhaps these actions spring from the recognition that it’s wrong to disrespect or devalue an individual (whether a child or adult) because of their skills, background, etc., or rather the lack thereof.

4. Yet, there seems to clearly be a distinction between equality of worth and equality of gifts, possessions, etc. The Bible grounds the former in the fact that all people bear the image of their creator and thus possess a dignity that is worthy of respect (e.g., James 3:7-10). At the same time, it frankly acknowledges that God has entrusted some with greater gifts, possessions, and responsibilities than others (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 4:7; note that the fact that we’re not supposed to boast about what we have is grounded in the fact that it’s God who has given it to us). In other words, not every child born has the potential to play in the NBA. In fact, it appears that there will be some kind of inequality even in eternity (see Luke 19:11-27).

5. Numerous biblical passages indicate that God often uses failures, disappointments, and other challenges to mature and lovingly discipline us (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Heb. 12:5-11; James 1:2-4). In effect, they are capable of bearing the fruit of deep and persevering faith in Christ and his gospel. If encouraging such faith is our ultimate goal as parents—above even our kids’ happiness, as conceived in the relative short term—then it should cause us at least to think carefully how we respond to their setbacks, as well as how we encourage them to do the same. 

6. The above discussion highlights the dangers of shielding our kids excessively. Certainly the pendulum can also swing too far in the other direction. How then do we give our kids the proper self-understanding? Certainly there’s a lot to say here, but it starts, not surprisingly, with the aforementioned gospel. On the one hand, the gospel faces squarely our sin and all the brokenness it causes in our lives, i.e., it underscores our very real inadequacy. On the other, it speaks to the remedy of God’s love expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, i.e., it points to the great sufficiency we have in Christ. From a biblical standpoint, both side of this coin are integral for a healthy self-understanding. (Those wishing to pursue this further should check out Tim Keller’s brief but very helpful The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness.)

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