Yesterday’s Thoughts

January 16, 2007

Depression, Parenting and Protection

One of the perks that I receive by virtue of being the President of the parent’s organization at my children’s school is that I occasionally get to attend presentations on education and parenting that I might not otherwise.

A couple of months ago, I heard a woman named Madeline Levine speak about her book about teenagers, The Price of Privilege. The full title of the book is, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.

Ms. Levine’s points applied to American children generally. She has worked in both the South Bronx and Marin County and believe them both to be affluent environments, so she has an elastic definition of affluence. I believe this is an exact quote, “All Americans are privileged.”

I don’t want to run down her entire argument (buy the book, I haven’t) but she said one sentence that crystallized everything that she was saying for me. It wasn’t even a sentence, it was a fragment. Speaking of the power that comes with affluence she began talking about a parent who said, “I don’t want my child to feel ….”

Wow. It doesn’t matter how you end that sentence. It can’t be good. You are willing that your child be depressed.

Naturally, parents don’t want their children to feel hungry, or cold, or afraid, or disadvantaged, or unhappy, or left out, or bored, or any feelings that we identify as bad or unpleasant. As we have become more affluent, we have acquired the power to stop our children from feeling more and more types of bad feelings. Essentially all American parents can ensure that our children will never feel hungry or cold, and we work hard to ensure that our children aren’t bored or unhappy. With sufficient wealth you can even buy your child friends, or at least social acceptance.

These protective feelings for our children are a recipe for depression to the extent that we act on them. Having feelings is a profound gift. Living with, experiencing and negotiating their feelings, and the feelings of their peers, their family and their community is arguably the most important skill that we need to teach our children. Wealth allows us to keep our children from these feelings. Wealth allows us to teach them to avoid these feelings.

How can you experience your feelings if your parents don’t want you to have them? How can you learn to negotiate your feelings if you don’t experience them? How do you recognize the feelings of others if your own feelings are foreign to you?

Many of my most powerful experiences occurred in a six month period as I hiked the Appalachian Trail when I was 19. For the first time in my life I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was wet. I was dirty. I was cold. I was lonely. I was hot. I was alone.

I was alive.

This was hike was a transforming experience for me, not because I accomplished something that few people had, but because for the first time I moved into my body and inhabited it. The achievement that I had had, was the acheivement of living with, responding to, and dealing with my feelings.

The veils of civilization, and my parents wanting to protect me, and being able to protect me, had kept me from my feelings. Experiencing them was miraculous.

I believe we all have an innate desire to experience our feelings. Well meaning institutions keep them from us, an of course there is a point to that. There are experiences that no one should have to endure, feelings no one should have to manage. But lacking actual authentic experiences of feelings people will create feelings. This is where the cutting, and the drug abuse, and the acting out that Madeline Levine sees in her therapy practice arises.

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