Success, Suffering and Miracle Gro

Early success is like putting Miracle Gro on your character defects.” 
–Michael J. Fox @ HIMSS conference in February
Michael J. Fox, aka Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” to my kids, said this great quote at the conference Scott attended in February.  
I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Clearly Michael J. Fox has been through both a lot of early success and a lot of suffering since his Parkinson’s diagnosis.  Scott was hugely impressed by his words, his sincerity, and his humor.
Some years ago, my colleague Greg Fung spoke about suffering.  He said suffering gives us capacity to receive good things in life and the character to appreciate them. Using Britney Spears as his foil, he pointed out how her early success and riches seem to have harmed her.  That without the maturity that comes from dealing with disappointment and hurt and betrayal, she hasn’t seemed to have the capacity to steward the great things she’s been given in life.

Britney was a great example, because when I talk to my kids, they want everything she has–fame, fortune, celebrity, plus good looks.

I’ve wondered how to think about this in parenting because we spend our lives trying to prevent suffering in our kids’ lives and wanting them to experience a lot of success.   So when we prevent suffering or encourage too much early success in our kids’ lives are we pouring Miracle Gro on their character faults?
I guess this is why the whole “natural consequences” view of discipline makes sense.  When kids suffer the natural consequences of their bad behavior, the suffering helps them, we hope, to not make the same decisions about their behavior in the future.  One book said the kids should suffer from their problem behavior, not the parents!
I love the idea of natural consequences.  Figuring them out and implementing them is whole other deal.   Especially because the real consequences and suffering of bad behavior often lies far in the future. 
Take sibling issues for example.  Here’s my dilemma:
1.     The girls, caught up in their own worlds, stopped wanting to interact with their brother about the time he stopped being the most adorable little toddler boy on the planet.
2.     He, hurt by their indifference, found that the best way to get their attention is to annoy them.  When he annoys them, he gets a lot of attention, all negative.  But in his worldview, it’s better to get negative attention than no attention.
3.     They in turn, become more mean, more dismissive and more exclusionary
4.     He, in turn, becomes more annoying.
It’s a big gigantic horrible cycle.  Four years ago, when I told the pediatrician that Ren had figured out the best way to get his sisters’ attention was to annoy them, she sighed, “Once that pattern starts, it’s pretty hard to stop.”
As they get bigger, the shrieking gets louder.  And I’m the one who’s suffering.   I now totally get why the Grinch was so surly, “Oh the noise, noise, noise, noise!”
My kids don’t care when I warn them that the natural consequence of their terrible meanness could be estranged relationships when they’re grown-ups.  And frankly, they don’t believe me because they know I too was horrible to my siblings and adore them now.  And my abused younger siblings seem to still like me.
I have no wisdom here.  What’s the natural consequence of bickering and fighting other than an insane mother who said two days ago, “Go ahead, kill each other for all I care.”
To which a child said, “You do care.  You would care a lot if we killed each other.”
Yup, I would. 
I sure hope all this suffering will lead some some capacity in the future for good things.  Until then, the bickering is putting Miracle Gro on all my character faults.

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About Kathy Tuan-MacLean