Teaching Responsibility: The Unseen Cost of Pampering Our Children

By Greg Baer M.D.

August 14, 2023

Parenting

I know a ten-year-old boy, Julian, who is quite a soccer fan. Mostly he watches a lot of matches on television, but he also plays around the neighborhood some. His middle school has a soccer team, so he decides to try out. He joins the team workouts, which are quite strenuous.

Growing Pains: The Hidden Risks of Youth Sports

Remember, he’s a young kid, whose body is still developing, and although kids that age appear to be indestructible, they’re not. All of Julian’s starting and stopping and turning cause a partial tear where the Achilles tendon of the calf attaches to the developing bone of the heel.

This is not a small injury. If such a patient isn’t very careful, the tear can easily worsen to the point where the tendon tears off the bone, and now we’re looking at surgical reattachment and prolonged recovery.

So Julian’s doctor prescribes absolutely NO motion of the ankle. None. For several weeks, Julian is supposed to wear this enormous boot that holds the foot and ankle completely immobile. It’s an impressive boot.

Understanding Pain: A Lesson in Physiology

Now here’s the thing about this injury. With most injuries, pain is INFORMATION, telling you to stop doing what you’re doing before you worsen the injury. Pain means, Lighten up, back off. If you have a history of lower back pain, for example, and you feel a little pain while bending, STOP bending, and usually all is well.

Not so with a partial tear of the Achilles tendon. If you’re experiencing pain, the pain means that you’re actually INJURING the tendon. You have to immobilize the heel so that you experience NO pain. This is a real problem for a ten-year-old who thinks he’s invincible. Hence the enormous boot Julian is wearing.

Enforcing Boundaries: The Challenge of Discipline

But the boot isn’t a guarantee. Julian still can’t move stupidly or do anything that causes pain. Any pain. So Julian’s Mom watches him closely. Within the first hour of getting home, she can see him edging the boot closer and closer to the wall. She KNOWS he’s going to kick the wall, but she waits. Sure enough, he kicks the wall, which leaves a mark, and he also winces from the pain—worsening his tear. He just cannot control himself, and he has a long history of that. He does whatever he wants, with no regard for the consequences to himself or others.

To make things worse, the school has planned a summer trip for Julian’s grade. There will be a week at the beach, lots of athletic activities, a couple of museum trips, and on and on.

Mom calls me and asks what I think about Julian going on the trip. She says:

  1. He promised to be careful on the trip, AND
  2. The chaperones for the trip offered to watch him, protect him, make him feel included.

The Parent's Dilemma: Pleasure Now or Life Skills?

I ask her, What is your job? Is it your job to make sure he has fun?

OR

Could it be that it’s your job to love him and teach how to be responsible, to help him develop a sense of confidence that he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life?

Mom says, “Well . . . he’s REALLY been looking forward to this trip. It would break his heart if he couldn’t go.”

Now, let me talk to all parents. THIS is where we get fatally distracted by our kids almost every time. We look at their sad, pleading little faces while they beg to do something fun, or buy something, or whatever, and our hearts melt. Sure, we want them to have fun, but mostly we’re AFRAID of them. We’re afraid to cause them disappointment and pain, because then they express their disappointment and disapproval and pain AT US.

Listen slowly: If your goal is to avoid disappointment and disapproval in your child, you’re DOOMED as a parent. Not kidding. The higher goal here is not to PLEASE your children. Your JOB is to love them and teach them how to be happy for a lifetime—how to feel loved, how to be loving, how to be responsible.

So what do I say to Julian’s mom, who is wondering whether to let him go on a week-long school excursion?

First I try not to laugh out loud. Then I say, “Mom, Julian can’t be trusted not to kick the wall at home with you WATCHING him. He couldn’t be trusted to control himself for ten seconds, and that’s on the same day he gets the boot put on his foot, with strict warnings. There is ZERO possibility that he could be careful on a long trip. Zero. He promises to be careful, but he can’t control himself on a good day, with little risk. On the trip, he WILL fail. If you care about him, you won’t let him go.”

The Painful Outcome: When Boundaries Are Ignored

Unbelievably, Mom lets Julian go, but only after he promises to be careful.

One day after Julian leaves, Mom gets a call, telling her that Julian is in an ambulance, screaming in pain, on his way to the hospital—the wrong hospital, of course, so that he’ll have to be transferred to the one where his orthopedic surgeon works. Julian was playing around and completely tore his tendon from the bone, which really hurts. The surgery is successful, but that’s not the end. After this surgery, people often have problems with walking, leg strength, flexibility, and more.

Parenting Pitfalls: Emotional Pampering and Its Consequences

What’s the lesson here? Mom unwisely gave her child a single day of fun—maybe—but essentially caused the child’s tendon rupture, explosion of pain, surgery, physical therapy, and potentially a lifetime of problems with walking and running. Bummer.

And that’s exactly what happens with parent and children in so many ways emotionally. We parents are reluctant to cause our poor babies any delayed gratification, any refusal of their desires, anything unpleasant, but in return for our fears and weakness, we get children who are selfish, entitled, irresponsible, unloving, and quite unable to have fulfilling relationships and happy lives.

By pampering out kids, we’re killing them, just as surely as Julian’s mom caused his surgery and subsequent physical problems.

Embracing Growth: The Courage to Parent Effectively

We have to summon the courage to love and teach our children. We have to understand that our children MUST experience discomfort in the process of growing.

It’s all about the parents. It’s all about YOU.

Go to RealLoveParents.com and learn how you can save your child’s life.

Want to learn more?

Eliminate confusion and conflict with your children.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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