by: Mariann Devlin
A semi-recent story in the Atlantic chronicles one therapist’s discovery that sometimes really good parents screw up their kids.
I appreciated the article for what it was worth. The author, Lori Gottlieb, pointed out what some parents may not understand that shielding their child from painful truths may just set them up for emotional failure later in life. When their toddler falls down and is clearly uninjured, they shouldn’t rush to their aid. If their teenager fails at something like sports or a certain academic subject, its okay to give them negative feedback. If they don’t, they run the risk of raising kids who can’t deal with their own personal limitations and wind up being depressed and anxious. Parents who don’t want to let go of their kids shouldn’t, according to the article, confuse their children’s sense of security with their own.
But there were some things about the article that got under my skin. Why is it so unacceptable to teach kids that there are no winners or losers in life? Why is it damaging to reaffirm their sense of self-worth, even if they’re not particularly struggling with it?
After reading the article, I sat back and thought of the kids who really are at-risk of winding up on a therapist’s couch because their parents were too validating. And I realized, these experiences may only resonate with those who already have a leg up in life (something, I’m sure, Gottleib would agree with).
To make a long story short, I grew up poor. My mom couldn’t afford much, and beginning in the fifth grade I was made fun of relentlessly for it.
But my mom and my teachers were awesome about telling me that I could do anything I wanted to. The sky was the limit, they would remind me constantly, and even if that wasn’t true- it set me up to believe in myself in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Even though I didn’t always feel capable of attracting friends, because of all the teasing, I did feel smarter than the rest. Even when I got poor grades and skipped class in high school, I chalked it up to being “too good” for my teachers’ menial assignments.
Even if my self-esteem veered off in a strange direction, where I started to fuck off because I felt I could afford to, at least I had some semblance of self-esteem to speak of. I fear for children from low-income families, who don’t have people in their lives telling them that they can do anything, no matter what their obstacles are. Because otherwise, what may end up happening is that the only voice they hear is the voice of their own inner critic.
I remember playing softball when I was a kid in Anchorage, Alaska. Our team was decent, but it was always frustrating when we had to play against the Rogers Park kids. Rogers Park is the most affluent part of Anchorage. Kids who grow up there have parents with lots of money, lots of land, and really nice homes they built themselves. They also pay for top-notch softball and baseball coaches, and every time we set off to play them we just knew we were going to get creamed. They beat almost every single team in Anchorage, every time.
Despite our coaches encouragement, before the game we’d say to ourselves “there’s no point in even trying.” These girls would pitch way so fast, and hit so hard, it felt physically threatening. “Win or lose” wasn’t an option. The only choice you could make was to try your best despite the knowledge that you’ll lose. It was the same feeling I struggled with, growing up alongside wealthy, attractive, and intelligent girls who often bullied me. I could certainly try my best, but in the end these are girls who would get into really great colleges that I couldn’t afford.
I grapple with those feelings still. I have to remind myself, as I deal with trying to further my writing career, that its not my personal deficiencies, but the economic situation I was born into that has me struggling. And I’m not alone. So many of my brilliant, capable friends are having a hard time finding work that both fulfills them and pays decently.
At any rate, I didn’t succumb to that feeling of despair, because I had my mom, my grandparents, and teachers (thank you Mr. Harper and Mrs. Barnes!) that I was gifted. That’s not to say it was easy to feel good about myself amidst bullying- and the social standards forced upon all adolescent girls by the media- but that’s exactly the point. How easy it would have been for me to slip permanently into a feeling of hopelessness — a feeling that would land me in therapy next to the overly-validated perfectionist — had I not listened to those affirming voices telling me I was something really special.
I appreciate Gottlieb’s belief that parents ought to let their kids fail sometimes, and teach them that sometimes you will be a loser and there’s nothing can you do about it. But that only goes for kids who generally don’t fail in the eyes of others or who aren’t real losers to begin with. Kids who are well-off, have intact families, and feel liked and appreciated by their peers. Let those kids fail sometimes, I say, and lift the spirits of the other ones.
Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.