I think the worst feeling I ever have as a parent is when I see my children suffer. I know this is true for my mother, too: she never could stand to see me in any sort of pain. I saw this again last week, when I had my tonsils taken out; I wish the surgeon could have prescribed some narcotics for my mom, who was in almost as much pain as I was, and just at the sight of MY pain.
When kids' hurt, we parents feel it. This is perhaps even more true for kids' social and emotional pains than for their physical ones.
We naturally want to protect kids from pain and difficulty, but when we do this we deprive them of the challenges that will help them grow intellectually and emotionally. In my own research I found that happiness can actually come out of difficulty, not just in spite of it. The only thing that the low-income kids in my study had that brought them happiness that the rich kids didn't have was challenge. Having adequate challenges in their lives tended to lead to greater happiness among adolescents; while the most advantaged teens in the study had many more of the other factors that led to happiness, they tended not to feel adequately challenged.
I don't think our generation of parents has embraced the notion that it is okay for our kids to experience difficulty, especially when it comes in the form of pain and sadness. We want to step in and solve their problems at school and with their friends. Uber-involved parents talk to principals to ensure that our children are properly understood and supported; we "help" with homework to an extreme; we orchestrate playdates that manipulate who our children's friends are, and how those friendships are carried out.
This has had a measurable effect on our kids' generation: compared to people raised in the 1960s, kids today perceive their lack of control. Jean Twenge, a psychologist and the author of Generation Me, has shown that young Americans increasingly believe that their lives are controlled by outside forces rather than their own efforts. Ironically (from the viewpoint of parents trying to rig their kids for success), Twenge finds the implications of this belief are "almost uniformly negative:" they are connected to poor school performance, helplessness, ineffective stress management, decreased self-control, and depression. We might be preventing pain and protecting their innocence, but we are also depriving our children of the chance to know what they are made of, to learn to cope with life's inevitable difficulties and sadnesses, to develop their grit.
And it turns out that grit—this is the term researchers use when measuring stick-to-it-ness in the face of difficulty—is an important predictor of success. Want your kid to succeed in school? In a large study of college students, task-commitment—the perseverance, endurance, and hard work that make a person "gritty"—turned out to be the most important factor in predicting success in many different arenas, including science, art, sports, and communications. Grit was more important than SAT scores, high school rank, and high school extracurricular involvement.
Grit is also a core component of life-long happiness: when kids learn that they can't cope with life's difficulties—both because mom or dad always seem so hell-bent on making sure that they never occur, and because mom and dad are always solving kids' problems—they come to fear challenge. Mistakes become something to be avoided at all costs. This can create perfectionistic tendencies that are a particular form of unhappiness.
Although we can put a great deal of care and thought into creating the best possible lives that we can for our kids, they are still, gosh darn it, going to face pain and difficulty. Even so—or perhaps because they are allowed to face their own challenges—their lives can be happy. Maybe even wildly happy.
© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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