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Parents should stop obsessing over their kids' happiness -- easier said than done

Lori Gottlieb sparked debate with her persuasive article about how modern parents' obsession with their kids' happiness is actually backfiring and dooming them to unhappy adulthoods. But putting her insights into practice isn't so easy, she finds, when the kid's happiness at question is her own.

It’s a little embarrassing to be training to be a therapist and not know what to do with my own child.

Take the other day.  My usually joyful 5-year-old son woke up exhausted, having been out too late the night before.  He was cranky.  He did not want to get out of bed.  When I opened the shade, he yelled, “It’s too bright in here!” in a tone that sounded like he was being subjected to torture.  He explained that there was no possible way he could go to school, because he couldn’t move his arms.  Then he used those same arms to pull the covers over his head and attempt to go back to sleep.  I asked if anything was going on at school that made him not want to go.  “No,” he said, “I love school!  I just want to go later.  Like in two hours.  I’m tired!”  I said I know how hard it is to go to school when you’re tired, but his teachers and friends were expecting him on time.  I nodded sympathetically to his complaints.

When empathy failed, I said things like, “If you don’t get dressed and to the breakfast table in five minutes, you’ll have to go school in your pajamas.”  He thought that was hilarious.  (Parenting mistake #1:  Making a threat.  Parenting mistake #2:  Making an empty one.)

Needless to say, we arrived at school late.  Unfortunately, there happened to be an event in the neighborhood, so after driving five blocks away and still finding no parking space, I drove to the front of the school, idled in the middle of the street, and explained to my son that just for today, he would need to walk into school himself, while I sat in the car and watched him the entire time so I could see that he arrived safely.

Normally, he’d be excited to act like a big kid.  But because he was in such a cranky mood, nothing was going “normally.”  After just a few steps, my son turned around and pleaded, “Mom, come with me.  Just leave your car in the street and it’ll be quick, OK?  Pleeeeeease!”

Here’s where it gets really embarrassing:  Not wanting to make him unhappy, I considered it! Instead, I put him back in the car, drove for another ten minutes to find a space, parked seven very long blocks away, and walked him into school.  By the time we arrived, he was upset, I was upset, and I knew I’d handled this poorly.

I know I’m not alone.  A friend told me that when she made herself late for work in order to bring her daughter’s forgotten lunch to school, the teacher explained that it would have been better for her daughter to learn what happens when you forget things.  Maybe the experience would have helped her daughter come up with a system to remember her lunch next time.  Another friend told me that when her son was disappointed that he didn’t get the “awesome” counselor at camp, she asked for a switch.  The director said no, and her kid ended up bonding strongly with his assigned counselor.

None of the experts I interviewed for my article, "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," advocate going from over-nurturing to under-nurturing, from over-indulgence to hard-line rigidity.  Lavishing love and affection on your kids is a good thing, along with healthy nurturing, which means supporting but not fixing, being present without being intrusive, and wanting your kids’ happiness but knowing they may need to struggle.

That night, as I kissed my son goodnight, he said he had a confession:  “I wish you didn’t walk me into school today.”  I wanted to yell, "WHAT?  After all that drama?"  Instead I asked in my calm mommy voice, “Why not?”  He smiled and said, “Because then I would have seen how brave I could be.”

Now if only I can be brave enough to let him struggle the next time.

Lori Gottlieb is the New York Times bestselling author of "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough."