No More Jellyfish, Chickens, or Wimps:
Raising Secure, Assertive Kids in a Tough World
by Paul Coughlin
Copyright © 2007 - Book Excerpt
Overprotective Parents, Underdeveloped Kids
Steve wasn't prepared for adult life. This fact has been driven into him in part through his own troubled conscience; it's been driven in even more by his wife of eighteen years, fed up with being the only proactive adult in the home.
"She screams at me—'Stephen, you're such an idiot, you don't know how to be a man!"' he told me.
"That must be hard to hear," I offered.
"It is, but it's true," he said.
Steve got the double whammy, the full nice-guy childhood.1 First, he lived a highly scripted life; his parents had micromanaged his childhood, too often overriding his will and fighting too many of his battles. Second, he got an angry God thrown at him—a God out to get him and ready to crush him at any moment if he messed up.
God was an angry taskmaster, who must always be appeased with good behavior, a sort of behavioral sacrifice. "God was constantly watching me and my siblings," Steve recalls. "He was always looking for us to screw up so he could punish us.
"You wouldn't dare think of eating without thanking God for your food, even during the times when I wasn't thankful. I had to pretend a lot in my prayers."
Steve says his home created solemn people who worried they were not in the "palm of God's will." He laments, "I just never felt comfortable with God or with myself. Or at school. I was constantly second-guessing myself, the way my parents did. Their prayers were often one big worry session."
Steve wasn't allowed to select his own clothing or choose the color of his own room. His friends were handpicked by his parents. His mom determined his hairstyle even into high school.
None of this paved any paths for him to make friends or get along with others. He says now, "I was a snot. I put a lot of rules on games back then, so I can see why kids didn't want to play with me. Playing with me wasn't play. It was work. Kids needed a manual in order to play with me."
Once in elementary school he was painfully reminded of this when the other kids excluded him from dodge ball, gobbling up all the balls in the playground's equipment shed. Then he wanted his own ball to bounce around, and his overprotective mom sprung into action. "Soon I was given a brand-new rubber ball with large initials written on it in black permanent ink." But in the world of children, she may as well have written "LOSER" instead of Steve's initials. Steve's mom thought she was being a good mother, but her intervention made matters worse. "Kids ridiculed me even more. I didn't want the ball. I kicked it into a neighbor's backyard when no one was looking."
As an adult, Steve looks to his wife to make the decisions in their marriage.2 She's the driving force, and her drive is weakening. She's tired from having to do almost all the daily lifting. Steve was conditioned to wait on others to make decisions for him; he's passive, and he's never developed the ability to make choices. Steve has learned how to be helpless and reactionary due to overprotection. Growing up, he wasn't allowed even limited dominion over expression of who he was. Small decisions, such as what kind of books he could read, or what he wanted to do on a Saturday afternoon, were made for him. Or more accurately, against him. His will was hijacked by his parents and by what he was told God wanted him to do.
And there's Max. Max's mom had a difficult upbringing that included physical and emotional abuse. She vowed that when she became a mother she would not perpetuate the same mistakes—she wanted her son to experience none of the pain she'd endured. Unfortunately, she failed to see the difference between debilitating suffering and the kind of day-to-day distress that gradually teaches children how to thrive in the real rough-and-tumble world.
They lived in relative ease and privilege, but Max's mom lived as though every object and idea in existence could (and would) harm him. Her campaign to scrub his world of discomfort began when he was a newborn. She would search the inside of his sleepers for an imperfect seam. Anything with the hint of a rough spot was rejected and thrown away.
She verbally horsewhipped neighborhood kids if they hurt his feelings. She soon became known as the "crazy lady" up the street. If he had a complaint about a class, she was there in a moment, telling the teacher how bad she was at her job. She was the kind of mom educators love to see leave their school, the kind that makes good teachers leave the profession.
She had in her mind an immature mantra: Protect my son at all costs. And sadly, at least for a while, she succeeded—she smothered him. Her overprotective approach toward motherhood is reminiscent of Truman Capote's epigraph in his last, unfinished work: "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones."
Her protection further isolated Max from the world of boys and men, who found him odd and his company distasteful. He didn't act like a man in the making. Nor did he show much interest. He hung out on the sidelines of life, rarely saying or doing anything of substance. He dropped out of high school and sold drugs.
Max doesn't remember being disciplined, and so he never acquired self-discipline. He also didn't receive any parental consequences for his increasing criminal behavior. Neighbors complained, "Has anyone ever told him the word no?" Max was a product of his age, of good-intentioned parenting that followed this contemporary belief: Good self-esteem comes from always feeling good about yourself, from never feeling pain or discomfort, from having every potential risk screened and eliminated before it reaches you.
Obsessive hyper-management was like a moniker on a sweater: Good Mother. You could see it in her eyes and in her stride when she swooped into action on behalf of her son, the project into which she funneled her fears. She believed that the wake forming behind her—roiling with belligerence and insults upon those misfortunate enough to receive her abuse—was clearing the way to a brighter future for her only child.
Hers weren't just everyday run-of-the-mill battles, the kind that make up the usual grind of life. From the tone in her voice, the resolve in her eyes, and purposeful heaviness in her stride, she seemed to see herself as a present-day Joan of Arc. Hers was a crusade: Good Versus Evil. How could anyone reproach such earnestness, such fervor, such seeming nobility?
But there was another reason she behaved this way. She needed her boy to fill a void in her. She was lonely. Because she ate through the goodwill of others, she burned through friends; however, Max wasn't a flight risk. His dependency upon her made him a willing captive, a slave to her unmet desires, a needed companion to stave off the hell of isolation through the sin of emotional incest.
The current result of her hovering and bullying parental philosophy? Max is addicted to heroin, is in and out of prison, and sleeps in his car. He, like her, is fragile, broken, and depleted. He was overprotected, and now he is undernourished and underdeveloped. His scars, as with all emotional and spiritual scars, still contain wisdom and hard-to-decipher signposts pointing the way back to wholeness. Yet he doesn't have the skills, perseverance, or courage to unearth them, study them, learn from them, and repent—he has no idea how to proactively turn away from lies and toward truth. He needs a soul transplant.
A Most Well-Intentioned Disaster
Countless other men and women have grown up under overprotection, the new societal mandate for stressed-out and nervous parents. It's a culture full of round-the-clock worrying, consistent second-guessing, nocturnal teeth grinding, and coffee-drenched mornings. It's where we run to find quick answers and complete solutions to any little problem our children face; we do this whenever we have little or no faith that the issue could be worked out over time and doesn't need our constant attention and intervention. Where we speed down to our child's school and bring them their homework assignments and books because they accidentally left them at home, instead of letting reality sink in, teach, and minister. Where parents pay their children money every time they win a game. Where parents call coaches and chew them out because their child didn't make the team. Where kids aren't allowed to play on safe streets because parents are freaked out about kidnapping. This fiasco can be at its worst in the churches where parents receive high praise for sequestering their children from the world.
Many men, like me, struggle with parenting that smothers, though women are front-lining the charge in this obsession with riding roughshod over children. Says Hara Estroff Marano,
Women are leading the way, teaching men how to overparent. Men, however, have their own reasons. They grew up realizing that they scarcely knew their fathers and are trying to overcompensate with their own children for what their fathers never were with them—involved.3
One reason women are in charge of this unfortunate conquest is found in Max's life. His mother had unfulfilled and frustrated romantic yearnings, energy from which is often channeled into hyper-parental vigilance, leading to highly enmeshed mother/son relationships that emasculate young men. Specifically, maternal overprotection leads to victimization: It is one of the most powerful predictors that the son will be picked on in school and that he will not offer resistance. When a boy's mother drastically eliminates his exploration of the world and vicariously fights his battles, he will be perceived as a victim—in particular, a passive victim.
Writes Dr. Debra Peplar, professor of psychology at York University:
Maternal overprotection predicts victimization if during conflict children feel compelled to submit—and are also afraid. If boys internalize the negative messages about themselves that are implied in the inept parenting of overprotection, and come to feel that Mother's wish is their command, then the boundaries with their mother are blurred.4
* Interrupt their child often.
* Tell their child what to think and feel, even telling them that what they are currently thinking or feeling is wrong. (In Christian circles, they might be told, for example, that feeling anger is sinful.)
* Override their child's initiative.
* Abruptly change topics of conversation.
* Tell their child to change his/her facial expression.
* Are only willing to discuss certain issues.
Today's prevailing Christian worldview largely demands that a mother overprotect her sons, and she's often regarded as negligent if she doesn't. For a woman to raise a courageous child who has Christlike characteristics in his life, she must swim against the predominant subcultural mainstream and allow him to take meaningful risks through which to grow and mature.
As we saw with Max's mom, loneliness is another common source for overprotection that carries with it the potential for overarching fear and degrees of paranoia. What's so slippery about such behavior? It appears so sacrificial. It's selfishness disguised as thoughtfulness.
Furthermore, a good desire to nurture, taken too far, can be far too much of a good thing. Here's Dr. James Dobson's gentle explanation:
From about three years of age, your little pride and joy begins making his way into the world of other people.... This initial "turning loose" period is often extremely threatening to the compulsive [often an overprotective] mother. Her natural reaction is to hold her baby close to her breast, smothering him in "protection." By watching, guarding, defending, and shielding night and day, perhaps she can spare her child some of the pain she herself experienced growing up. However, her intense desire to help may actually interfere with growth and development. Certain risks must be tolerated if a child is to learn and progress.5
Contrary to our assumptions, kids who receive constant parental protection don't do better in life. When they're too often harbored from inevitable hardships and challenges, they do not develop a keen understanding of their own abilities and weaknesses. Sometimes they become overconfident, possessing a distorted sense of themselves; most of the time they lack confidence, some to the brink of social anxiety and clinical depression, prime targets for childhood bullying that can persist into adulthood.
These latter kids, over months and years of not being able to grow, have a vital life power gradually drained from them, making them unable to donate power to others and to live intentionally, redemptively. Some never fully recover. Others spend part or most of their adulthood "getting their life back," or rather, becoming themselves for the first time; many of these do so only after devastating blows like divorce, career chaos, or bankruptcy.
Whether overprotected children become arrogant (over confident) or self-diminishing (under-confident), they share the same malady: they focus too much on themselves, and not enough on others. This is a basic component of narcissism; narcissists of all kinds are socially inept, repeatedly displaying behavior that breaks relational ties with others, pushing them further into the pit of isolation.
Kids Need to Feel Bad Sometimes
If you want to shock contemporary sensibilities, tell today's parents that their little ones need to feel life's inevitable stings from time to time. Not the kind that crushes their spirit, but the kind that awakens their discernment, increases their understanding, and gives them wisdom about the realities of life. Explains child psychologist David Elkind, professor at Tufts University: "We learn through experience, and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope."6
While speaking to parents about raising kids with successful character, Dr. Henry Cloud was asked: "If there's one thing that's most important to teach children about success, what would it be?"
"I would teach them how to lose," he said.
A woman tilted her head, looked at him strangely, and asked, "Why in the world would you want to teach them how to lose?"
"Because they will," Cloud said emphatically.7
The most important lesson children gain from losing is that the difference between winners and losers is not that winners never lose.
The difference is that winners lose well, and losers lose poorly. As a result, winners lose less in the future and do not lose the same way that they lost last time, because they have learned from the loss and do not repeat the pattern. But losers do not learn from what they did and tend to carry that loss or pattern forward into the next venture, or relationship, and repeat the same way of losing.8
This fundamental building block of successful living is being denied a growing number of children. In various ways, their parents are not allowing them to fail in a meaningful way. Not surprisingly, though, another dramatic venue for this burgeoning problem is schools. "Parents and schools are no longer geared toward child development, they're geared to academic achievement," says Elkind.9 Some kids are "achieving" it over their teacher's warm resignation letter; parents are exhausting educators by "protecting" their children, and schools are furthering it by emphasizing test-score results over well-rounded students.
A study from Sydney, Australia, shows that principals as well as teachers are having difficulty handling a growing number of parents who are "aggressive, pestering, vexatious and unreasonable ... who are hell-bent on getting their kids an educational edge and convinced beyond reason that their children are supremely gifted and talented.... The burnout rate for teachers in their first three to five years is as high as 30 percent, research shows."10 The article says that one out-of-control mother, who refused to acknowledge that her child was a troublemaker, suggested that the school punish the student next to him, "because that would be enough to shock him into behaving." A University of Sydney study shows teachers leaving the profession in droves at about twenty-nine, only a few years out of college.
Some schools are accommodating our culture's belief that life's bumps and bruises should be eradicated from the lives of our children. An elementary school in Santa Monica, California, expresses a negative opinion of a game that it considers both physically dangerous and potentially harmful to a child's developing psyche. That game is tag.
"The running part of this activity is healthy and encouraged; however, in this game, there is a 'victim' or 'it,' which creates a self-esteem issue."11 Should we replace hide-and-seek with don't find-me-too-quickly-or-I-might-feel-bad?
Nations far and wide are losing their nerve to truly help children succeed. Rod Morgan, a former professor of criminology and now chairman of the Youth Justice Board in England, says thousands of children are ending up in court because teachers are afraid to discipline students for bad behavior out of fear that they will be brought into court. Morgan is urging his country to rally around teachers who struggle to contain bad-behavior children—especially single-parent children.
We know that the proportion of families where young parents—often mothers bringing up a child alone without the presence of a male role model and a father present on the scene, and without the support of an extended family—are having to cope with more and more challenging child behaviour in fairly deprived areas. This has to be confronted. Teachers have to be supported to explain the need for boundaries, to enforce boundaries, but to do it in a manner which remains inclusive and to do it in a more assertive manner for those parents who may collude with their own children's bad behaviour.12
It is a common mistake to hold on to the things we love too tightly. As with Max's mom, it can feel so noble and so right. But good intentions aside, the consequences of wrongly raising our kids can be deadly. It's not so much that we need to do more. It's that what we're doing needs to be different. We need to change course.
1. See Paul Coughlin, No More Christian Nice Guy (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2005). [back]
2. See Paul and Sandy Coughlin, Married ... But Not Engaged (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2006). [back]
3. Hara Estroff Marano, Why Doesn't Anybody Like Me? (New York: Quill, William Morrow, 1998), 52. [back]
4. Ibid., 196. [back]
5. Dr. James Dobson, The New Hide or Seek (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1999), 140–41. [back]
6. Marano, "A Nation of Wimps" in Psychology Today, 61. [back]
7. Dr. Henry Cloud, Integrity (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 159. [back]
8. Ibid., 160, emphasis original. [back]
10. The Sydney Morning Herald, "Nice Kids, Shame About the Parents" (May 21, 2005). [back]
No More Jellyfish, Chickens, or Wimps: Raising Secure, Assertive Kids in a Tough World by Paul Coughlin
Copyright © 2007; ISBN 978-0-7642-0242-1
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
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