The Blame Game

Why is it that articles that are supposed to be helpful to parents so often end up making you feel terrible about yourself?  I just read an article titled, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”, which really should have been subtitled “Ten Ways to Screw Up Your Kids”.  It is basically a summary of everything mothers today are doing wrong in raising their children.

The actual subtitle of this article from Atlantic magazine is, “Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods.”  Although it starts out with the idea that some of the unhappiness in young adults may be due to their parents having been too “good” – caring, understanding, supportive – much of what follows is a discussion of all the bad things mothers do in the service of their children’s happiness.

It always interests and amazes me that mothers are held responsible for whatever seems to be troublesome in our society.    Mothers are the cause of – and are supposed to fix through child-rearing – whatever is wrong.  I pointed out in an earlier post that among other things mothers have been blamed in the past for widespread neuroses, academic failures, failures of attachment, and even gender discrimination.  Now the issue seems to be that the sole goal and focus in raising children has become happiness.  By leaving out the “pursuit” in the pursuit of happiness, children never have to struggle and are therefore unable to cope when they experience adversity.

I certainly agree that mothers are very invested in their children’s happiness.  Many times in discussions with mothers about concerns they may have about a child, what I hear is, “I just want her to be happy”.  It is also the case that if happiness is so all important, any sign that a child is unhappy becomes very worrisome.  Probably we all do things that may not really be in our children’s best interest if we’re too worried about whether or not they are happy.

 But the question I want to raise is why are mothers being blamed for the negative consequences of this over investment in happiness?  The idea that you are supposed to feel happy all the time is a widespread cultural attitude.  Happiness has become an entitlement.  If you are not happy, that means something is wrong.  Even while writing this, an ad came up on the computer showing a beautiful young woman lying in bed with the heading, “I’m not sad, but I’m not happy either”.  The attached article would tell you how to fix that.

I heard a talk recently on the enormous increase in pharmacotherapy – treatment with psychotropic drugs.  The interesting fact is that the greatest numbers of prescriptions are written by general medical practioners, not psychiatrists.  Also, the drugs are being prescribed for the most part not for mental illness but for a wide variety of other complaints, including those that could come under the heading of “unhappiness”.  Clearly, we are all surrounded by the idea that we are not supposed to feel any discomfort, and that pills are available to make us feel “happy”.

More specifically, those of us who are the supposed “experts” in child development need to take some responsibility for the anxiety mothers feel about their children, and the concern about “happiness” that this can lead to.  Ever since the advent of child development research, mothers have been warned about all the things that can go awry as our children grow, and all the things they are supposed to do to prevent that from happening. 

The whole idea of “meeting children’s needs”, so prominent in much child guidance material, is in practice a murky matter.  What is a need as opposed to a want?  Is it bad to gratify children, harmful to frustrate them?  If a child is upset, withdrawn, angry, does that mean there is a problem, that we as parents have done something wrong?  It is not surprising that mothers use happiness as the measure of whether their children are well adjusted, and of their own success as parents. 

We live at a time when families live at great distances from one another.  As a result, many families are without a much needed support system in raising their children.  The economy is such that too often both parents have to work, whether they want to or not.  Child-rearing practices that at one time were handed down from one generation to the next are no longer considered valid.  We reject our own parents’ advice, sometimes because we don’t like the way we turned out, but also because of the widespread idea that child-rearing is a science which requires an expert.  Child guidance manuals promote that idea.

The fact is, children are always going to dislike what parents expect of them.  Giving up childish pleasures in order to become a social being is not easy.  Children are going to feel angry, frustrated and unhappy at times in the process.  They blame their parents for that.  Why are we joining them in the blame game?

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