Letting Your Child Be Sad

sad child


A timely article by Sarah Fernandez exploring the consequences of raising our children ‘wrapped in cotton wool’. ┬áSee her blog here.

Want Your Child to be Happy?  Let Them Feel the Opposite

In the July/August issue of The Atlantic psychologist Lori Gottlieb explores why she has so many patients in their 20s and 30s who have it all, but aren’t happy in her story “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” While the story is lengthy, it’s worth taking the time to read and to consider how you handle situations in which your child is faced with sadness and disappointment. It appears that a lot of parents are swooping in the moment their child so much as falls down on the grass, looking for learning disability diagnoses in order to explain why their child isn’t as good at math or reading as another child, and letting children quit an activity the moment they show any dislike for it. Gottlieb’s theory is that as a result these children are growing into adults who have “awesome” parents, “great” husbands, and “good” jobs, but they don’t feel happy. Not only that, but when they don’t get the job they want or something goes wrong, they have no idea how to handle it because their parents have always made sure that things are just peachy keen for them.

So many parents are so involved in making sure that their children always get what they “deserve” that some colleges are now creating a position for Dean of Parents to help control the influx of parent phone calls and are having to set up special events at orientation to separate the parents and children because the parents are lingering around and don’t want to leave the children. Oh, and did you hear the story about the Long Island, NY woman who stalked and threatened the baseball coach when her son didn’t make the team? Where do we draw the line?

“Suck It Up” Parenting

I like to say that I was raised in a house of “Suck It Up” parenting. Life isn’t perfect, and my parents made sure we knew that we can’t always get what we want. I remember not wanting to do any activities at one point when I was in grammar school, but my parents believed it was really important so they told me I could do whatever I wanted whether it was a sport or an art class, but I had to do something. They allowed me to have some control over what I wanted to do, but they weren’t going to let me sit by and let me do nothing despite my disappointment. Not only that, but once we committed to something, we were committed to it for the session. We were taught to finish what we started, and I think that is something important that I have carried with me into adulthood. There were no days off from school “just because” or even if we had a headache. We were expected to help around the house and with yard work whether we wanted to or not, and as a result I knew how to do things like put a dishwasher on and my laundry when I went off to college and eventually into my own house. And I’d say that my brother, sister, and I have all developed into successful, generally happy and well-rounded people despite our “imperfect” childhood.

Allowing Disappointment

However, recently I’ve struggled a bit with how to handle my son’s disappointment. Of course we never want to see our children hurt physically or emotionally. When his best friend from school didn’t show up to his birthday party, he was really upset. I thought about picking up the phone and calling his parents just to find out why they couldn’t make it (not to berate them for disappointing my son). But ultimately I knew that if they weren’t there, there was a good reason so there was no need for me to call them. Instead I just explained to my son that something must have come up, and we knew the boy’s dad had to work that day so maybe he had ended up working late. And I explained that rather than sulk around his party, he should enjoy playing with the friends that did come which he eventually did.

Later that week, my son wanted to buy a board game with a gift certificate that he received for his birthday. I dreaded this because he tends to get upset when he doesn’t win, and when we brought it home, the thought crossed my mind that maybe I should let him win so that I could avoid the meltdown that follows, but even that I knew was really for my own benefit and not his. I just didn’t want to deal with it. Ultimately, I decided that I would be doing him a great disservice and that he needed to learn how to lose gracefully. He is only five and I don’t want him to lose all the time, but I’ve found that playing a few rounds of the game so that he wins some and loses some has taught him to take losing in stride much better than he would have only a few weeks ago, and I think it’s appropriate for his age.

Life Isn’t Perfect

The bottom line is that no matter how much we protect our children, at some point they are going to have to go out into the world without us. There will hearts broken, sports teams they don’t make, friends who let them down, and colleges they don’t get into. It may even rain on their wedding day. It is just as important that we teach them how to handle what they will encounter on their own as it is that we do our best to protect them and show them how much we love them.


Don’t forget to enjoy your day.