Studies confirm that overprotective parents are doing a disservice by sheltering their children from life. Recently, a number of animated films have been attempting to get this message across to parents, most notably, Coco and Moana. Moana’s father lost his best friend to the sea, so he warns Moana: “No one goes beyond the reef.” In “Coco,” Miguel’s great great grandma became a single mother after her guitar-playing husband abandoned the family… henceforward, music was forever banned from the home. In my own home growing up, the “danger” was horses. My dad’s compulsive gambling put our family into a perpetual state of poverty. In particular, he loved horse-racing and betting at the racetrack. My mom was so traumatized by this that she forbid having anything to do with horses in our home. If I was just surfing the channels and happened to pause on a horse, my mom would shout “turn that crap off,” even if it was Mr. Ed. Parents put a lot of effort into trying to shield their children from *their* mistakes, which typically does more harm than good.
Most parents do not aim to be overprotective; but our best intentions are often defeated by our natural instincts. We tend to focus on the most visible risks, not necessarily the most realistic or threatening. The “availability bias” is the human tendency to think that things that more readily come to mind are more common than is actually the case. “If I can imagine it, it must be likely.” In Coco, Miguel’s musical ambitions are thwarted by the sins of his great great grandfather. Miguel’s great great grandmother was so traumatized by his abandonment of the family that her story became a cautionary tale passed down to her descendants, as if it was ingrained into their DNA. Parents often fall prey to the fallacy that our genes dictate our destiny. Frustrated by her father’s overprotectiveness, Moana complains to her mother. “He just doesn’t understand me”! Siding with the father, her mom replies, “Your father is hard on you because he was you. Drawn to the sea. His best friend begged to be on that boat, but he couldn’t save him. He’s hoping that he can save you. Sometimes who we wish we were, and what we wish we could do, is just not meant to be.”
When I would press my mother about her overprotective ways and arbitrary rules, she would resort to similar rhetoric. In addition to my father’s gambling addiction, he was also an alcoholic. As a consequence, I grew up in a dry household. Quite literally, I never saw a single can of beer or drop of alcohol in our house. My mom didn’t even want me to associate with anyone who consumed alcohol, adult or otherwise. Her exaggerated fears led me to believe that even a single sip of Bud Light would lead to my demise.
The sad irony of overprotective parenting is that it ultimately pushes children towards the very danger their parents seek to avoid. When parents try to eliminate all possible risks in a child’s environment, continuously tell children they cannot do something, and then resort to lies and arbitrary pronouncements of authority, they ultimately foster resentment in the child and break trust. Once trust is lost, children are more likely to lie to their parents and go behind their back, putting them at further risk of harm. In Coco, Miguel can’t resist his passion for music despite his family’s stern rebuke. Yet, he’s so afraid of disappointing his family that he stashes his guitar, records, and other memorabilia in a secret space. When his grandmother discovers his stash, she promptly destroys his guitar. Crushed, Miguel runs away into the night in search of a new guitar. While his family frantically searches for him, Miguel’s fool-hearted drive leads him to the “Land of the Dead,” where he narrowly escapes death.
If you truly want the best for your child, the single most important factor is facilitating an open and honest relationship. Some parents might believe it’s in a child’s nature to lie, but parents often set their kids up to lie. The best way to encourage honesty in your children is to model honesty for them — not only in your words but also in your lifestyle. Tell them how important it is to all of you that you can always count on each other to tell the truth — even when it’s difficult. Let them know that you put more emphasis on their honesty than on the punishment for their disobedient conduct. Yes, you can impose consequences for their infractions, but they need to know there’s a benefit to them in being honest. If you glide right over their courage in confessing the truth and jump to punishment, they won’t be so quick to fess up the next time. When parents confront their kids accusingly with anger or threats, they’re pushing their child up against the wall — almost defying them to tell the truth. And in such a case, most children come out fighting, or denying, or lying —because it’s just too humiliating and anxiety-provoking to be honest.
Imagine that you just caught your 16 year-old smoking pot, or worse, abusing opiates and other pain pills. The message we want to give our kids is “don’t use drugs,” but if they mess up, we want them to candidly talk about it rather than lie to cover things up. If it’s a serious addiction, the next time could be the last. Children can be so worried about getting into hot water or disappointing their parents that they end up “choosing” death rather than facing judgment. Youthful addicts are more likely to enter recovery and find sobriety if their parents have already cultivated an open and honest relationship. If you make it safe for them, they will be honest. So be firm on honesty, and gentle on your kids.