Parenting by pain avoidance

In 20 years of teaching, I have seen all kinds of parenting.

I’ve seen tragic situations, of course. Parents who kick out their teenagers in anger. Parents who abuse or manipulate their children or make them pawns in divorces. I’ve also seen parents who have just plain given up on their kids.

But this post won’t be about those cases. Most parents aren’t like that. Most parents — no matter their personal circumstances — are trying their best to be good parents, to help their children safely navigate the tricky waters of childhood and adolescence.

I want to talk about a much subtler problem. While we can easily identify bad examples of parenting, we struggle when it comes to defining “good parenting.”

Social forces are driving today’s parents toward a conception of parenting that is well-intentioned but harmful to children. “Helicopter parenting” — or constant monitoring — is part of this problem, but it is not the whole story.

The root problem is that we are so worried about our children’s happiness that we neglect other goals. This fear is reinforced by the media and other parents. We can’t stand the thought of our children hurting, so too often we are parenting by pain avoidance.

When we do this, we create children who are self-centered and dangerously lacking in resilience. We see both of these issues in school — in students who expect everything to be easy for them and crumble when they encounter difficulties.

I know I’m not the first to write about this, but I am a parent myself – for as long as I’ve been a teacher – so I think I understand what is driving parents today.

I have felt the pain of my children’s disappointments. I remember when my older son, Ben, spent every day of 3rd grade practicing pull-ups for the presidential fitness test. He was so proud of himself when he hit every target in class, and on the day the fitness awards were passed out, he waited in anticipation to finally hear his name.

His name was never called. The teacher had mistakenly overlooked him. He came home sad and frustrated — and I felt his pain. Actually, I was in much more pain than he was.

It was such a minor thing, but it was the first of many instances when I felt that deep frustration and a desire to fix the world for him, to pave him a smooth path. I just wanted him to be happy! And he deserved it! How could that feeling be wrong?

Fortunately, Ben didn’t want me to call the teacher. And once I’d cooled down, I realized that it would have been a mistake. If years of teaching had taught me anything, it was that life isn’t always fair, and the young adults who manage obstacles best are the ones who have learned do it themselves.

Still, those feelings never really go away. It hurts when your child gets a bad grade, especially when the teacher seems unfair. It hurts when they don’t make a team, or get enough playing time, or get into their dream college, or get the job they want. On top of that, we feel competitive pressure from other parents to make sure our kids are successes.

But which one of us walked through life without obstacles? I didn’t make teams, either. I was cut from cheerleading, pompon squad, volleyball and tennis — everything I tried out for in high school. I survived. I was rejected by 73 of the 75 newspaper internships I applied for during my junior year of college. Again, I survived.

It’s OK for our children to run into obstacles. It’s good for them to fail sometimes, too, so we can help them learn from it. If you never fail, how do you learn to try again? How do you learn what your limits are? How do you develop empathy for other people?

The emphasis on pain avoidance shields children from important life lessons. It also encourages parents to make bad decisions about simple things — like what kids should eat or when they should get a smartphone or what time they should be home on Saturday night.

It’s very hard to place appropriate limits, when your main goal is keeping your kids happy.

Instead of focusing so much on happiness, we need to start thinking: What kind of person do I want my child to be? And how can I use each situation, each decision, to move them toward that goal? When they encounter trouble in school or in sports, what should my response be?

I know what I want. I want my children to be independent, thoughtful, hard-working, reliable, and kind. I want them to persist when they encounter difficulties, and I want them to have empathy for others.

I want the same things for my students, and I think their parents do too. I just hope we can keep those goals in sight when an obstacles threatens their happiness.