Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

Text | Edited by Lori Gottlieb New Media Department, Junior Business School

"At a time when we are leaving no stone unturned to provide our children with a perfect childhood, we may be making it harder for them to grow up." This article from the American "Atlantic Monthly" that we want to share today is worth every parent to read carefully.

In a word, that is: when we master more and more so-called avant-garde parenting concepts, we must remember the basic truth that fish and bear's paw are difficult to have both: we can't both aspire to high achievements and try to help them avoid competition and struggles that they should go through.

If there's one thing I've learned in college, it's that the words of the poet Philip Larkin really make sense: "Your dad and your mom hurt you, not on purpose, but they did." ”

At that time, shortly after I gave birth to my son, I returned to school to study clinical psychology. With my child in mind and a final thesis on hand, it's easy for me to notice studies that discuss how parents harm their children.

Of course, everyone knows that a spicy mother, a mother who serves as the president of the school's parent-teacher association, and who brings milk and bakes cookies every day when her children come home will raise completely different children. But most of us fall between these two extremes, and in this zone, many things can be done wrong if we are not careful.

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

As a mom, I want to get it right. But what is "right"? With this question in mind, I walked into the bookstore. All past research—from John Balby's "Attachment Theory" to Harry Halllow's monkey experiment—has shown:

If they can't interpret your child accurately, misinterpret their signals, or give them too little love, decades from now, they're likely to walk into a psychotherapy clinic (if there's enough money to pay the bill), sit on the couch, lean against a box of tissues, and tearfully recall what mom did to him and what dad didn't—50 minutes a week, sometimes for years.

Later, as a psychotherapist, my main job was to be the parent of these children again, providing a "corrective emotional experience" in which they inadvertently empathized with us the early feelings of hurt and then responded differently—more considerate and empathetic than they received in childhood.

But when I started receiving patients, I found that the most painful thing for many children was not that their parents did too little.

These kids have everything

But it's just not happy

My first few patients, almost a textbook model. When they talk about their unhappy childhoods, I can effortlessly connect their sadness to their upbringing.

But, soon, I met an exception, this girl in her 20s, smart and beautiful, let's call her Lizzie.

Lizzie has solid friendships, close families, and a sense of extreme emptiness. She told me that she came to counsel because she was "just unhappy."

She added that it was frustrating that she couldn't find out what she was upset about. She says she has "fantastic" parents, two wonderful siblings, supportive friends, a great education, a cool job, good health, and a beautiful house.

In her family history, there have been no patients with depression or anxiety. So why does she always have insomnia? Why is she always hesitant, afraid of making mistakes, unable to stick to her choices? Why does she think she is not as "amazing" as her parents have always commented, that "there is always a hole in her heart"? Why does she describe feeling "erratic"?

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

I was stumped. What is the problem in this case that there are no indifferent fathers, reproachful mothers, and other laissez-faire, demeaning, disorganized caregivers?

When I tried to figure it out, something amazing happened: more and more patients like this. My couch was full of adults in their twenties and thirties, reporting depression and anxiety, difficulty choosing or focusing on a satisfying career path, inability to maintain good "intimacy" relationships, a sense of emptiness or a lack of purpose—but their parents were beyond reproach.

On the contrary, these patients all said how much they "adoled" their parents, that they were their "closest friends" in the world, that they were always responsive, and that they even paid for them to receive psychological treatment (of course, paying rent and car insurance for them), which made them feel guilty and confused. After all, their biggest complaint is that they have nothing to complain about!

Parents do their best

The child cries about emptiness

At first, I was skeptical of the statements of these people. Childhood is generally not perfect, so if their childhood is perfect, why are they so confused and unconfident? This is contrary to what I have learned.

But after a while together, I came to believe that they didn't whitewash or misinterpret.

They really have caring parents, giving them the freedom to "discover themselves", encouraging them to do whatever they want, taking them to and from school, and accompanying them to do their homework;

help them when they are bullied or isolated at school, ask for tutors when they worry about math, pay them for music lessons when they see a hint of interest in guitar (and allow them to give up when they lose interest);

Talk to them when they break the rules, rather than simply punishing them roughly (using "logical consequences" instead of punishment).

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

In a word, these parents are very "considerate" and devote themselves to guiding my patients through the trials and tribulations of childhood. As an overwhelmed mother, I often wonder how these great parents did all this when listening to patients.

Until one day, another question came to mind: Are these parents doing too much?

Yes, I, along with countless other people, are trying to be good parents so that our children will not fall to the psychiatrist's couch in the future, and I am witnessing the flesh-and-blood consequences of this parenting method. We do our best to provide proper parenting for our children, exhausted, and when they grow up, they sit in our office and tell them how empty, confused, and anxious they feel.

When I was a Ph.D., the clinical focus in the academy was how a lack of parental thoughtfulness affects children, and no one thought to ask what happened to these children if their parents were overly considerate?

Overprotection deprives happiness

In the United States, parenting has always been a controversial topic because the stakes are too great and the various schools of thought are difficult to conclusive. Between different sects, there has always been a saber rattling: intimate parenting VS strict teaching, child-centered VS parenting-centered, and the social wind direction is "thirty years of Hedong, thirty years of Hexi".

However, the fundamental purpose of all parenting methods is the same: to raise children into happy adults in the future. My parents wanted me to be happy, and my grandparents wanted my parents to be happy. What has changed in recent years, however, is that people have different perceptions and definitions of happiness.

Nowadays, happiness is not enough, you have to be happier. The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have mutated from "seeking general satisfaction" to "you must be happy at all times and in all aspects."

"I'm happy," Gretchen Rubin wrote in the bestseller The Happiness Project, "but I should have been happier." "This quest has swept the United States and turned into a national movement.

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

So how happy should she be? Rubin wasn't sure either. It sounds like she's exactly the same as some of my patients: great parents, a "tall, dark, handsome" (and wealthy) husband, two healthy and lovely children, a bunch of friends, a mansion on the Upper East Side, a Yale law degree, and a successful freelance writing career... Still, Rubin was not satisfied, "as if something was missing."

To dispel "melancholy, insecurity, depression and scattered guilt," she embarked on a "happy journey": making a list of actions, buying three new magazines every Monday, and constantly tidying up her wardrobe.

After a full year of hard work, Rubin admits she's still struggling. She wrote: "In a sense, I made myself even more unhappy. ”

She goes on to reveal one of the so-called "mysteries of adulthood": "Happiness doesn't always make you happy." ”

Pursue happiness as a goal

It will only lead to disaster

Modern sociological research supports her claim. "Happiness as a byproduct of life is a great thing," says Barry Schwartz, a professor of sociology at Swarthmore School, "but pursuing happiness as a goal only leads to disaster." ”

Many modern parents are tirelessly pursuing this goal, but it backfires. My colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that parents were too protective of their children when they were young, avoiding making them unhappy, and depriving them of happiness as adults?

Paul Bonn, a psychiatrist at UCLA, says the answer may be yes. In clinical practice, Bonn has found that many parents do everything possible to prevent their children from experiencing even the slightest discomfort, anxiety or disappointment. When children grow up and face normal setbacks, they think that things have gone seriously wrong.

He said: "When toddlers tripped over stones in the park, just fell to the ground, and before they could cry, some parents would swoop in, pick up their children, and start comforting. This actually deprives children of a sense of security – not only in the playground, but also in life.

If you don't let your child experience that momentary confusion, give her a little time to understand what happened ("Oh, I fell"), let her grasp the frustration of falling, and try to get up on her own, she won't know what it's like to feel uncomfortable, and she won't know how to deal with trouble in her life later.

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

When these kids go to college, they text their parents for help with minimal hassle, rather than finding a solution on their own.

If, when a child tripped over a stone, the parents allowed her to recover for a second and then reassure her, the child would learn: "One second was scary, but I'm fine now." If something unpleasant happens, I can settle it myself. ”

In most cases, Bonn says, children cope well on their own, but many parents never understand this because they are too busy reaching out too early when their children don't need protection.

It reminds me of myself when my son fell in a bunker and an arrow rushed forward.

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

When I recall a friend of mine dying of cancer when my son was four years old, my first thought was: I can't tell him. After all, he didn't even know she was sick. I knew he might notice that we stopped visiting her, but all the parenting books I've read say that learning of the death of a loved one is too scary for a child.

Eventually, I told my son the truth. He asked a lot of questions, but didn't pass out from shock. In short, in Bonn's words, my trust in my son made him trust me more and ultimately feel more secure.

By telling him about it, I sent a message: I trust he can tolerate grief and anxiety, and I will be there to help him get through. If you don't tell him, it sends another message: I don't think he can handle the discomfort. And that's exactly what many adults convey to their children every day in an implicit way.

The child does not like classmates in the same car

His parents drove him to school

Child psychologist Dan Kenderon, a lecturer at Harvard University, says children cannot develop "psychological immunity" if they do not experience painful sensations.

"It's like the body's immune system develops," he explains, "and you have to expose your child to pathogens or the body won't know how to respond." Children also need exposure to setbacks, failures, and struggles.

I know parents who, as soon as their child is not selected for a baseball team or gets a role in a school-wide show, they call the school to complain. Another child said he didn't like another child who rode to school with him, and the parents didn't teach the child how to tolerate others, but simply drove the child to school himself.

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

These children did not experience any hardship until adolescence. The so-called civilization is to learn to adapt to imperfect situations, but parents often encounter unhappiness and immediately intervene to pave the way for their children. ”

Wendy Mogle, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, became a consultant for many schools in the United States after publishing the book "Putting Down the Child" 10 years ago. Over the past few years, she told me, college admissions directors have reported that there are more and more "teacup" freshmen——— who are so vulnerable that they can break at the slightest wall.

"Parents, with good intentions, digest all their worries for them throughout their childhood," Mogle commented, "and as a result, they grow up not knowing how to deal with setbacks." ”

"Parent evicters" hired by universities

This may be why patients like Lizzie end up in front of a psychologist.

"Even with the best parents in the world, you will still experience less happy times," says Jeff Bloom, a Los Angeles family psychologist. If we want our children to grow up to be more independent, we should prepare them every day for their future departures. ”

Bloom believes that many of us simply can't afford our children to leave because we rely on them to fill the emotional hole in our lives. Yes, we spend countless amounts of time, energy, and wealth on our children, but for whom?

"We confuse our own needs with the needs of our children and think that's the best parenting approach," Bloom said with a sigh.

When I asked him why he sighed, he explained, "It's sad to witness this phenomenon. I have told parents countless times that they pay too much attention to their children's feelings because of their own psychological problems. If a psychologist tells you that you need to spend less energy on your child, you should know that the problem is serious! ”

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

In an article for The New York Times last October, Rainey Bacher, a Louisiana mom, described her sense of emptiness after sending her daughter to college in the northeastern United States.

Bacher was hoping for some comfort from other mom-making friends, but people were busy buying refrigerators for their children's college dorms or rushing home to help middle school students turn off their computers.

So Bacher also went to her daughter's dormitory from time to time, finding various excuses to pick on her daughter's apartmentmates, and stayed for a long time on the grounds of helping to move, at first she defended that it was for her daughter's good, but finally admitted: "What people call 'helicopter parents' are people like me." ”

Moms like Bacher are not uncommon. Mogle said that every year at the beginning of the school year, parents stay on campus, and university administrators have to use various tricks to "chase" new parents. The University of Chicago ended the ceremony with a bagpipe performance — the first to lead new students to the next event, and the second to drive parents away from their children.

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

The University of Vermont hired "parent evictions" to keep out parents who followed them. Many schools have also designated informal "parent reception deans" to deal with difficult adults.

In recent years, there have been many articles exploring why so many twenty-somethings refuse to grow up, but the problem is often not that children refuse to separate and be individualized, but that parents prevent them from doing so.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by busy work.

"If you can only spend 20 minutes a day with your child," asked Kenderon of Harvard University, "do you want to talk to him and make him angry because he didn't clean up the room, or play a game together?" ”

"We don't set rules for our children anymore because we want our children to like us all the time, even if sometimes they can't stand us, it's actually healthier for them."

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

Kenderon also observed that since we have fewer children than our ancestors, each child becomes more precious. At the same time, we ask for more from our children—more companionship, more achievements, more happiness—and in the process, the line between selflessness (making our children happy) and selfishness (making ourselves happy) is blurring.

I recall a conversation with a summer camp director. She was introducing me to activities in my son's age group, and when it came to basketball, T-ball, soccer, etc., she quickly said, "Of course it's all non-competitive, and we don't encourage competition." ”

I couldn't help but laugh, the competition turned out to be a flood beast, and the children avoided it.

What we adopt is a "fish and a bear's paw" attitude: a desire for children to achieve high levels without the sacrifices and struggles necessary for that achievement.

Many people spend more time on homework for their children, and do not let their children do even the most basic and simple household chores. Are these parents too indulgent (no housework) or too ruthless (teaching their children good grades is more important than being a responsible family member)?

Choice and security

Ironically, for the most part, self-confidence has little to do with whether a person will be happy in the future, especially when self-confidence comes from constant tolerance and praise rather than from real achievement.

Research shows that what predicts a person's future fulfillment and success is firmness, adaptability, and the ability to be tested by reality, and with these qualities, people can live smoothly.


But now, many children do not have the opportunity to learn these qualities. Jane, a kindergarten teacher, felt this well, citing the example of a mother who brought her child to school, and while she was busy checking in, the child ran aside to play and got into a conflict with another child. Her child got the truck first, but another child snatched it away.

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

The two argued for a while, and the child took an old truck and threw it at her child. Her children, seeing no hope of victory, accepted the arrangement. But the mother stopped and ran over to reason, saying "that's not fair" and demanding that the child return the truck. "You see, the child would have been fine, her child was adaptable, but she ruined it all.

"We do teach children not to grab toys, but this happens all the time and children need to learn to solve problems on their own." Another kindergarten teacher, who has been teaching for 17 years, said that over the years, parents have increasingly interfered with their children's development. "After entering school, children realize that they are not the center of the world, which is good for them.

"Because at some point, other people's feelings are really more important than theirs." The teacher also said that there are many parents who think they set limits, but in fact they don't. When the child pestered for ice cream, the parents first refused, but after several negotiations, they gave in.

"Every year parents come to me and ask, 'Why aren't my children listening to me?' Why can't she accept rejection? I would say, 'The reason why children can't accept rejection is because you never refuse.'" ’”

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

Barry Schwartz, a professor of sociology at Swarthmore College, believes that loving parents give their children many choices every day, and the results are unexpected. "The philosophy of our time is that choices are good, and the more choices, the better," he said, "but that's not true." ”


When there are fewer choices, children feel more secure and less anxious. Having fewer options helps them focus on something, which is exactly what they need later in life.

Research shows that focusing on a certain job gives people greater satisfaction, and those who are always faced with many choices are often left behind.

Schwartz told me, "I don't mean don't let children try various interests or activities, but give them rational choices." A lot of parents tell their children, 'You can do whatever you want, you can quit at any time, and if you're not 100 percent interested, you can try something else.' So what's so strange about them when they grow up living the same way? ”

He saw the same phenomenon in the graduating class of Smoworth University. "They can't stand the idea that choosing one interest or opportunity means giving up the other, so they spend years hoping to find the perfect answer." They don't understand that they should be looking for 'passable' answers, not perfect answers. ”

Research: Does a perfect childhood deprive children of happiness as adults?

And when we give our children countless options, we send them the message that they deserve to live a perfect life. As Harvard psychologist Dan Kenderon puts it, "When they feel bad, there is another choice in front of them." ”


Underneath the anxiety of parents lurks the belief that if we do it right, children will grow up not only to be happy adults, but also to be adults who make us happy. This is a misconception that parenting, while important, cannot prevail over nature, and that different parenting styles apply to different children.

We can expose children to art, but we can't teach them creativity; We can protect them from obscenity, bad grades, and other factors, but they will always encounter unhappiness in life. In fact, at a time when we go to great lengths to provide them with a perfect childhood, we make it more difficult for our children to grow up.

As Wendy Morgill said, "Children are not our work." ”

To sum up, how to raise children into adults with a happy future?

1. Parents let go appropriately, and children with a "sense of participation" are better able to experience what happiness is.

2. Children also need to be exposed to setbacks, failures and struggles, and understand that they are not the center of the world. A child should experience normal anxiety in order to be adaptable.

3. When there are fewer choices, children feel more secure and less anxious. More important is to teach children the ability to make choices.

Authorship and Licensing

Lori Gottlieb, an American psychotherapist, is also a mother. The original text is from the American "Atlantic Weekly", translated by Guo Yanwen, and translated by Xiao Wu, an expert in children's education. Thanks in advance.