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TERRY GROSS, host:

Well-meaning parents today often unintentionally hurt their children by focusing too much on their children's happiness or achievements, according to my guest Richard Weissbourd. He's the author of the new book "The Parents We Mean to Be." He's a child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard. His earlier book, "The Vulnerable Child," was named by the American School Board Journal as one of the top 10 education books of all time. Weissbourd is the father of three children.

Richard Weissbourd, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book is about how well-intentioned adults can undermine children's moral and emotional development. What do we even mean when we say moral development?

Dr. RICHARD WEISSBOURD (Harvard Graduate School of Education): Well, I think when we're talking about moral development we're really talking about number of moral capacities. We're talking about moral reasoning, you know, your ability to think through moral problems. We're talking about your sense of justice and, you know, developing a sense of fairness and justice, your sense of caring, your sense of responsibility. We're talking also about social and emotional capacities. You know, the capacity to help other people without patronizing them, or to give feedback constructively - these day to day social skills that I think are very much a part of morality.

So that's mainly the kinds of things that I'm talking about. I would just also say that I think as a culture we're very focused on moral literacy, on whether or not kids know the values or whether kids know what's right from wrong. But one of the things you see is by the time kids are five or six years old, they basically know the values. You know, they basically know what right and wrong is. And, you know, the bigger issue is really having those values be internalized, having those values be a part of the self, a part of the child's identity.

So those values become more important than their moment to moment happiness at a given moment, or they're able to stand up for those values even if it has a cost to themselves. So, you know, I think our focus shouldn't be on moral literacy. I think it should be on this much deeper issue of moral identity.

GROSS: I heard a lot of parents say with pride that their child is like their best friend. You don't think that's really a very good thing? Why not?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, you know, on the whole, I think it's a very positive trend that parents want to be close to their kids. I mean, I think it's a wonderful trend. I mean, parents are sharing more with their kids, they're listening to their kids, they're spending more time with their kids. But, you know, I'm also worried about it in some respects. You know, for one thing, some parents, when they treat their kids as their best friends, become dependent on their kids and emotionally dependent on their kids. And it's much harder to discipline or to make demands or to create high moral expectations when you're dependent on your kids.

We also, you know, let our kids separate from us. I mean, that's critical for them emotionally and morally to be able to separate from us. And when we're dependent on them, when they're our best friends, that's harder to do. And, you know, just, I think the final thing I will say about it is that, you know, kids need to idealize us. And that's really the way in which they internalize our values, that's the way they adopt our values. And if we're their best friend, we're treating them like we're equals. And I think it can undermine that process of idealization.

GROSS: Now, a lot of the parents of the children are the baby boomers, and I'm wondering if you see any - I know that we're getting into generalization here, but if you see any generational differences between baby boom parents and the children of baby boom - how they behave with parents?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: You know, I think there are some differences between the baby boom generation and this generation of parents. I think there is - I mean to some extent, this is certainly true in the baby boom generation of parents -but there is a very high focus, among this generation of parents, on their kids' moment-to-moment feelings, which I think is somewhat different. I mean this is one of the things that you see on playgrounds a lot. You see parents who, you know - and I don't want cartoon parents here, because it certainly isn't true with all parents.

But you see parents who are noting their kids' moods every five or ten minutes, you know, saying that must make you frustrated, or that must make you angry, or that must make you sad, you know, sort of like pulling a bandage off every five minutes to see if the wound is healing. And so I do think there is that kind of close monitoring of kids' feeling's going on. And, you know, in some respects, this is a good thing, that parents are trying to help their kids articulate their feelings. But at the level it's going on, I think it can be irritating and stultifying and intrusive. And…

GROSS: Why?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: …at this level.

GROSS: Yeah.

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, yeah. I mean I think it's just sort of breaks down spontaneous play if parents are noting every five or ten minutes how kids are feeling. And it's just very un-relaxing for kids. And, you know, I think also sometimes kids - have to just work out these feelings on their own terms. So, you know, again I don't want to - I'm not - I'm all for parents helping kids to express their feelings and doing it when these feelings are prolonged. I'm worried about some parents and the frequency of it.

GROSS: When I was growing up, if you were away from home and away from your parents, you're out of reach for that amount of time. But now between cell phones and texting, parents and children can be in constant communication. And I wonder, you know, as a parent and as an observer, an expert on parent-child relations, how you think that's changing relationships?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, you know, I just think it depends. You know, I just think the amount of contact you have with your kid is really not a good barometer of closeness or healthiness. Some kids really don't want much contact with their parents and that can be absolutely fine. They want to be independent and that's great. And other kids want a lot of contact and they want a certain kind of intimacy, and that can be great as well. You know, I do worry some about parent's micro managing and hovering too much. And they've been in cell phone contact is a way in which they're micro managing and hovering, you know, that's not a good thing. You know, I was visiting a college with my son and, you know, parents were asking me questions like - you know, this was during an admissions process, we were just doing a tour of the college and parents were asking questions like - is there a rotating shower schedule and does the washing machine take cards or coins. I mean, there is a level of micro managing that goes on that gets pretty nutty sometimes. But again, I don't think frequency of contact is really the barometer of closeness.

GROSS: Another thing you worried about is parents who try to be an authority figure and a therapist to their child at the same time. What's the conflict there?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, you know, I think - again, I think sometimes kids really need to work out their anger towards their parents on their own terms. And, you know, being a therapist means, you know, listening to your kid and sometimes helping your kid process their feelings, that's a great thing. But if we are talking about young kids and where, you know, kids are four or five or six years old and kids were getting angry at their parents and their parents are trying in the moment to help their kids' process their feelings for them, I mean sometimes that's very appropriate.

But I think as a parent, you just have to be very careful that it's not about protecting you. It's not about securing you, because you're worried about - as you can't bear your child being angry at you. Because that you're doing it because you feel like this is a very important moment for kids to process their feelings. Because kids, you know, will get angry at you sometimes and they do have to work out their anger in their way.

GROSS: And you think that sometimes by playing the role of therapist, you are basically trying to explain, to rationalize your own treatment of a child and get them to agree that you were right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Sometimes, yeah.

GROSS: …shouldn't be angry at you.

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Yeah. You know sometimes I think that's right. You're trying to get your child to agree they shouldn't be angry at you or that you have a -they have a good reason for being angry at you. And, you know, sometimes they are just angry. You know, they have to leave the park and they have to leave the pool and they are angry and don't get over it and it doesn't really need to be discussed.

GROSS: My guest is Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, author of the book "The Parents We Mean to Be." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, my guest is child and family psychologist Richard Weissbourd and his new book is called "The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development." You know, you write in your book how parents are often obsessed with their children's happiness, but sometimes by elevating happiness as the most important thing there are other really important values that get demoted in the process. Could you describe your concerns there?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, yeah. I mean I think it's a concern about happiness and about self-esteem, and I just, you know, think in a day-to-day way, there are subtle ways in which we all prioritize our kids' happiness over their caring for others, or their taking responsibility for others. And you know, on playgrounds you see parents who are very attuned to how their kids are doing moment-to-moment but they are not helping - and again, not all parents - but they are not helping their kids, you know, reach out to a friendless kid on the playground or they are letting their kid interrupt a group of older kids during a game. You know, they are not helping their kids tune into other kids.

And you know, with my own kids, I feel like, you know, there have been times where I haven't insisted that they won't return phone calls from friends or I've let them write off kids that were annoying, or… You know, one of the examples I - stories I talked about in the book, is a couple who has, you know, they have a junior in high school and she is thinking about whether or not she wants to quit the soccer team, she's not enjoying it anymore. And the mother says, you know, you should quit. It's not fun for you anymore. And the father says, but you know, it's important for your college resume.

But neither of them are thinking about the team, and you know, her obligations to the team. And so I just worry, we're off whack with this, we're rather balance. And our focus, you know, in these ways becomes very much on our individual kids' well being, and not on their sense of responsibility for others.

And the irony is that, you know, I feel like if our kids are able to tune in and focus and care about other people, they're going to have better relationships their whole lives. So they are going to be better parents. They are going to better grandparents. They are going to be better friends to people. I mean this is the foundation for life-long happiness. So in the end, I think, you know, the focus on our individual kids' happiness is not only going to make them less moral, but its going to less - make them less happy in the end.

GROSS: For years, you've been writing about the overemphasis on self-esteem and in our new book, you write that Americans have become intoxicated with the power of self-esteem. What are some of the ways that educators and parents have been using to try to build self-esteem that you are concerned about?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Well, one of them is praise. And you know, praise for real accomplishment is very important, praise for effort, real effort, is very important. But again, I think that you see an excess of praise. I mean, you see a kind of steady stream of praise sometimes. And in schools, and you see it with parents on playgrounds. You know, not long - I was watching a father and a son play catch with a ball. And every single time the kid threw the ball or caught the ball, the father praised it, and when the kid dropped the ball he said nice try.

And there are sports programs that are advocating, you know, that you praise kids five times for every time you criticize them. And you know again, I think it's very important to praise kids, but you know, one of things that happens is, I think, at some point kids feel like this praise is meaningless, that it's vapid. I think sometimes when they are getting praised a lot, they can also feel patronized by it. Like, why do adults need to keep propping me up? When you're praising kids all the time, you are also judging them all the time. And, you know, so I think kids feel like their performance is at stake. And there's this research that says that, you know, kids who are feeling that their performance is at stake all the time and who are praised a lot, can get very competitive and very threatened by other kids.

And I - I just think its important that we think - that we're mindful about why we're - when we're praising a lot, about why we're doing it and really think about it, you know, how kids are responding. And think about, you know, is this about real accomplishment and is this about real effort.

GROSS: So you - your concern, in part, is that we are trying to build self esteem by praise. But that - that's not necessarily going to build durable self esteem. What do you think will?

Dr. WEISSBOURD: I think the chain here is, I think, we think the praise, among other things, will build self esteem and then self esteem will build character. You know, I think self esteem primarily comes from confidence, you know, from being good at things, good at things at school. You know, having social competence, and I think it also comes from virtue, from acting virtuously, if that something gets valued in your family or community. I think it - it comes from having good relationships too. You know, close relationships in which you really appreciate it. So, you know, I think if we focus on helping kids develop those things, they are going to be in much better shape. You know, rather than happiness or self esteem being the goal, one of the things I'm arguing in the book is that, I think it makes sense for maturity to be the goal.

And, you know, if you, if you think of maturity is the ability to take other peoples perspectives and to manage destructive feelings and to take criticism and to learn from it and to be self observing - you know, I think those are the qualities in the end, that, you know, are the basis for morality, but I also think they are the basis for good relationships and for lasting well being and for - and for competence.

GROSS: Well Richard Weissbourd, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. WEISSBOURD: Oh, it's great to be here.

GROSS: Richard Weissbourd is the author of the new book "The Parents We Mean to Be." He is a child and family psychologist who teaches at Harvard. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

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