GOOD: An Antidote to Overparenting

by Lisa VanDamme

A few years ago, I met up with a friend at a coffee shop in San Diego. My friend was a lieutenant commander in the navy who had served as a member of a SEAL team in Iraq. But right now, we were just two pals chit-chatting over coffee. At one point in our conversation, I started complaining about some trivial inconvenience.

“I agreed to watch Mike’s dogs while he’s out of town,” I said. “All five of them. I don’t know what I have gotten myself into.”

“Good,” he replied with a smile.

“Then he told me they have some ear condition, and they need drops in their ears daily,” I complained.

He laughed. “Even better.”

“He said they hate the drops, so I have to pin them down and be careful they don’t bite me.”

Shrugging away my grumbling, still with a smile, he said, “Perfect.”

I was taken aback by his reaction. Not offended — he wasn’t being dismissive or condescending — just surprised. He didn’t give me the “oh poor you” response I had expected; he basically told me to shut up and quit complaining. But somehow, his version of “shut up” felt encouraging, and perspective-shifting.

[This same friend later told me about a terrible accident he had suffered in naval training. He said his reaction at the time was, “I broke my neck. Good. I’ll learn French.” He did.]

I later learned that this attitude toward life had been taught to him by SEAL trainer and platoon commander Jocko Willink, author of a new book on leadership principles called Extreme Ownership. On his “Jocko Podcast”website, Jocko sells a t-shirt with nothing but his menacing face, and a mirror image of the word “GOOD” (presumably because the message is there for you, and you are inviting the reminder every time you look at your reflection).

So it is Jocko I have to thank for the “Good…Better…Perfect” story, which I have told people a hundred times. And they always get it, and it always helps them, like it helped me, to feel encouraged and to take a new perspective.

But why?

I have been prompted to think that through recently, because as both a mother and a school director, I am witness to — and sometimes guilty of — the growing and dangerous phenomenon of overprotective parenting. It has become so prevalent that we seem to have a new term for it every day: “helicopter parenting” (because we hover over their every move), “lawnmower parenting” (because we try to clear their path), and “cossetting parenting” (because we coddle and pamper them like little lambs). The common denominator is that we see it is as our jobs to protect our kids from discomfort and adversity.

When you uncover the meaning beneath “Good…Better…Perfect,” you find the antidote to overprotective parenting.

When we coddle, hover over, and clear the path for our children, we send some clear messages to them: 1) adversity is an aberration, a problem, something to be avoided, and 2) you are not capable of bearing or overcoming it. Neither of those premises is true, and I think most of us parents, if confronted with them directly, would deny them. Nevertheless, they are implicit in every action we take to relieve our kids from facing the normal challenges of everyday life.

Far from adversity being an aberration, to be avoided as much as possible in life, there is an important sense in which adversity is life. What would a life devoid of adversity look like? Something like the passive, lethargic people inWall-E, being moved from place to place, indulging every superficial appetite? The mere act of living is an effort, a struggle against inertia. Life is the pursuit of values, and to pursue values is to identify, take on, and overcome obstacles to their achievement. And it is a basic and incontrovertible truth that some our greatest joys in life come as a consequence of our greatest struggles.

A wise psychologist once told me, “You have to love the struggle.” It is a mistake to conflate happiness with the absence of friction or strain, and to resent or seek refuge from anything that poses a challenge to easy contentment. We must be careful to teach our children not that adversity is something bad, to be avoided, but rather that it is normal, that it is healthy, that it is a means to knowledge, pride, and achievement — that it is GOOD.

Also contained within Jocko’s simple but gestalt-shifting message is: “You’ve got this.” When we ourselves shrink from and complain about life’s challenges, we are telling ourselves that we aren’t equipped to handle or endure them. When we try to protect our children from reasonable challenges, we are telling them that they aren’t. I am not suggesting that when your child comes home from school complaining about a fight with a friend, the response should be to look at him with Jocko-like grimace (do a Google image search for a visual) and say, “GOOD.” What I am saying is that in our efforts as parents overall, our goal should be to help to cultivate the attitude it reflects: to encourage them both to embrace challenges, and to believe that they are equipped, capable, and strong enough to handle them.

The reason my SEAL friend’s reaction had been so strangely encouraging is that he was saying to me, “This is life! Life involves challenges. They should be embraced, not avoided. And you can do this!” My response was the thought, “Yes, it does, and yes I can!” and the impulse to stand up a little straighter.

“But it’s so hard,” you might say, as I have, “to watch my children struggle. I don’t like to see them upset, and I don’t want them to suffer the things I did.” To which my response should now be predictable.