Unfortunately many good parents these days overdo it with their kids. They make their children their whole lives and neglect their own identities and marital well-being. It’s as if they have no other identity other than being a parent.
Their overzealousness and striving for perfection is somewhat understandable. The world is so threatening and complex these days that moms and dads may constantly overprotect their children from the invisible harm of lurking perils. Many moms and dads have less than stellar training and support to be parents and they may tend to overdo it with their kids just to cover all bases. They feel they can’t make mistakes and they’re aware of all the media coverage of parents who make bad choices. However, children don’t benefit from other people micromanaging their lives or treating them as fragile. They definitely suffer from having to be perfect just to make their parents perfect. Nor do they benefit from other people doing for them what they need to do for themselves. Sadly, overdoing it with kids actually hurts them unintentionally.
Often I wish that loving parents would have more faith in the sufficiency of the caring they already offer their children. Time spent together just being with each other is enough. Listening, sharing affection, laughing and having fun as a family is better than anything for kids and is all they really need. In the name of not overdoing it with kids and affirming the love we already offer our children consider the following beliefs and see if they apply to you as a parent:
“It’s not possible to love my kids too much.”
Sadly, overdoing it with kids actually hurts them unintentionally.Realistic belief: “I am going to love our children with my heart and soul but most of all I am going to teach them how to love themselves.” Too many of us think that our loving our children will automatically result in their loving themselves. Actually, such a belief is true for infants in the first year and a half of life, it becomes less true for older children. Newborn infants completely absorb all the love that is poured into them. The brains of infants up to 18 months of age are joined right limbic (feeling and remembering) brain to its primary caregiver, usually mom. What mom feels about the infant and how mom handles her own emotions is directly wired into an infant’s brain, usually for life. After 18 months it’s a different story! A child begins to have a separate sense of self from parents and it needs a more mature form of love from its parents, one that respects and helps develop his or her individuality. This separate sense of self is the foundation of a child’s identity and is shaped largely by how the child handles its own experiences. The child learns to love himself or herself and others based on its competence in emotional self-regulation and social skills. Parents who do too much for their older children may indirectly undermine their children’s emerging maturity and separateness. They may give their children too much attention, buy them too many toys, not expect them to follow rules or contribute their fair share to the household, and over tolerate misbehavior, keeping children incompetent and dependent on them. Simply said, if we do our children’s homework for them, they will not learn to do their own homework and they will not love themselves.
“Once you have children their needs ought to come first.”
Realistic belief: “I will try to make our kids feel special but not at the expense of others or my own needs.” Too many of us excessively put our children first because we are avoiding unfinished aspects of our own identity or else we see our children as an extension of our own exaggerated sense of entitlement. Children do need our emotional attention and support for their own feelings and interests but they also need to learn how to support those needs and feelings in others and to solve their own problems. If parents continually put their children’s needs first they will cultivate an unrealistic sense of entitlement in their children, help their children to not fit in with others, induce helplessness in their children and cheat their children from learning how to love themselves and others. In learning emotional skills we all benefit from balancing our private pursuit of personal needs with concern for others. Children have even greater needs in this regard.
“How my child behaves reflects on my competence as a parent.”
Realistic belief: “My behavior as a parent reflects my competency. Our child cannot nor should not make me feel good about myself as a parent.” Most of us parents feel horribly ashamed and sad when our children make bad behavioral choices, especially when they are in the public eye. Whether or not we choose to personalize them or not is up to us. There are myriad reasons why our children misbehave besides our own incompetence as parents. Some children act out as a right of passage. Others do it as a necessary communication that can lead to positive change. They may be reacting to a missing parent, peer pressure, or media miseducation. Some children don’t have the inner resources to regulate their emotions due to genetic character flaws, mental illness or unrecognized psychoneurological impairment. Other children with bad character simply have a long learning curve. Oftentimes attentive parents are doing everything positive under the sun to be good caregivers and their children are still off track. It is a myth that we have control over our children. In fact, doing a good job as a parent means we are learning just how little control we have in life overall.
“It’s my job as a parent to protect my children from every harm.”
Realistic belief: “I will protect our children from harm and give them useful tools to protect themselves but I can’t protect them from everything.” Seeing our children get hurt is often a physical ordeal for parents. We feel our children’s pain in our bodies. Unfortunately too many of us parents become micromanagers in our children’s lives in an attempt to have our own anxiety be mitigated. Children who live under the pale of overprotection are afraid to take risks, have an overall anxious adjustment to life, and lack the inner resiliency to handle what life throws at them even when they have the skills to do so. Too many anxious children are essentially carrying their parents’ inner anxiety for them as if it were their own. They may develop asthma, health problems, depression and phobias simply because their immune systems have been overprotected and their own ego strengths are under utilized. Such parents may not be able to fathom how life adversity and hardships may be an asset to their children. It may surprise such parents to learn that the healthiest creatures on the face of the earth are sewer rats. It’s speculated that they’re tough because their immune systems have successfully faced every threat under the sun. Although children are highly dependent on us caregivers for protection, they significantly benefit from using inner resources to handle adversity. Into every life a little rain must fall.
“My children will have whatever they need.”
Into every life a little rain must fall.Realistic belief: “I will give our children many things but only if I feel it is in their overall best interest. Sometimes I will say no to our children’s requests.” Some of us moms and dads try to make up for all the deprivation we grew up with by going to the opposite extreme with our own kids. Some parents see their kids as extensions of themselves and their own inflated expectations. They may be overindulgent in their own lives and feel their children deserve the same. However, children who are given too much never learn to be satisfied or grateful for what they already have. They continually feel they should have more. Receiving too many toys is like getting no toys at all in the sense that you are never happy with what you have. Over giving to kids is actually a form of deprivation despite its appearance to the contrary. Children who are given too many things never learn the joy and pride of earning those things on their own through delayed gratification and working for them. They are deprived of the joy and confidence of being able to satisfy their own needs even without toys. Also when kids are given too much they never learn gratitude and often get on a treadmill of having to accumulate material things throughout their lives to fill the void within themselves. It’s much healthier if parents give wisely to kids and face the heartache of his or her own childhood deprivation independently of their children. Leo Tolstoy once said, “Wealth is the number of things we can live without.”
“I will make up to my children any adversity that happens to them.”
Realistic belief: I can’t make up for the adversity that happens to our children. I will support their feelings about it and help them grow stronger because of it.” Some children have serious life adversity — birth trauma, psychoneurological difficulties, autistic disorders, and painful divorce adjustments. Life’s not a bowl of cherries. It is only natural that parents might try to make up to the injured child to take away the heartache and suffering due to the affliction itself. None of us likes to see our children suffer and we hate feeling helpless when our children suffer. However when we become so uncomfortable with our own feelings over such adversity we may be tempted to undo or deny such suffering in our children by over loving them to the detriment of ourselves and their siblings. Such atoning keeps parents on a treadmill of guilt, encourages self-pity and entitlement in the afflicted child, and neglects the emotional needs of siblings. The afflicted child is hurt not only by the misfortune itself but also by the loss of normalcy and parental integrity in how he or she is raised. The atonement itself is often more damaging than the original adversity. It would be far better if the parents gave necessary attention to the afflicted child, got support outside the family for their own feelings of grief, and attempted to normalize the entire family as much as possible. Parents who aren’t apologetic about adversity, even when they have played a role in it, and support family grieving promote triumph over adversity. Every adversity is an opportunity.
For more information on these topics read: How Much Is Too Much? by Jean Illsley Clarke and No by David Walsh. These books really hit the nail on the head and are very readable!
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
This article first appeared in the September 2007 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commissions if you click on some of the links on this page – at no cost to you.
Last Updated on December 2, 2021