Junior guards on the sand at Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz
Junior Guards’ boards on the sand at Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

It’s never OK to make your kids cry every day — a family therapist responds to Junior Guards story

Santa Cruz family therapist Mara Alverson was saddened to see Lookout’s recent story headlined “Junior Guards joy: Why making my daughter cry every day was one of the best decisions of my life.” She doesn’t doubt Junior Guards is a great fit for many kids, but she questions “the wisdom of forcing kids to be part of a program that created tears every day for a week.”

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As a licensed marriage and family therapist and a parent, I was saddened to see this headline on Lookout Santa Cruz on June 25: “Junior Guards joy: Why making my daughter cry every day was one of the best decisions of my life.”

I was even sadder when I read the whole article.

I don’t doubt that the Junior Guards program is a great experience for many kids and that ocean safety knowledge is crucial for all of us. I question the wisdom of forcing kids to be part of a program that created tears every day for a week.

I have two serious concerns about this.

First, I think of the sadness and pain experienced by the child, which sounds as though it was considerable since she cried every day for a week. Being forced to perform physically beyond a person’s own perceived physical limits is a form of torture when it is not chosen by this person.

If an individual enters into this contract voluntarily, this can be a stimulating incentive, but when it is someone else’s idea, it is a violation of an individual’s physical, mental and emotional boundaries. Having one’s physical, mental and emotional boundaries violated is a source of trauma.

Trauma can result in lifelong anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.

I believe it is our job as parents, teachers and other adults who are close to children to support the child’s interests and strengths, not to impose our own. We have a tendency sometimes to want to shape our children into the people we wished that we had become. I see it frequently in parents of children in sports.

As a therapist, I often hear, “I wish that I had had that opportunity” or, “If only I had stuck with it!”

Think about how we, as adults, would feel if a power greater than us enforced a strenuous and unwanted discipline upon us. I, for one, would be very angry.

Of course, it can happen in any field of endeavor — the arts, the sciences, chess. It’s not done maliciously, but it can be crushing for a child whose true assignment in life is to discover where their talents lie and how they can use them to support themselves and their community. A child who is allowed to find and encouraged to follow their own interests is confident and happy because they’re doing what they love.

If a child learns that in order to be loved, they must submit to unpleasant, even frightening experiences dictated by their parents and other adults, their own sense of confidence and agency is threatened. It is harder for them to recognize their own inner knowledge of themselves, their strengths, their preferences — in short, their individuality.

My other concern is for the relationship between the parent and the child.

It is obvious from the article how much this dad loves and is proud of his daughter. It is essential for healthy personality growth and development that a child feels his/her parents’ approval and support.

In healthy personality development, a child’s dependence on his/her parents’ approval and love is balanced with the freedom to discover their own unique path. A parent’s aggressive forcing of their child to perform in an area that they are not drawn to, however well-meaning, will usually result in the child’s resentment and fear of the parent and in a sense of inadequacy and failure in the child. This fear and resentment can later result in rebellion or by the severe injuring of the love bond between parent and child.

Think about how we, as adults, would feel if a power greater than us enforced a strenuous and unwanted discipline upon us.

I, for one, would be very angry.

The child’s spirit is no different from our own, though they might hide the anger temporarily in an effort to “keep the peace” or win the parents’ affection.

Mara Alverson has had a private, Santa Cruz therapy practice for 40 years.
Mara Alverson has had a private, Santa Cruz therapy practice for 40 years.
(via Mara Alverson)

My practice in marriage therapy is filled with people who are still trying to heal from the self-loathing, anxiety and depression of feeling “not enough” for their parents. That feeling of “not enough” colors their ability to enjoy life and affects their work life and all their relationships.

I have no doubt the Junior Guards is a great program for those kids who are drawn to it and enjoy it. As parents, let’s be sensitive to what they are yearning to learn and explore.

Mara Alverson is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has practiced in Santa Cruz for the past 40 years. She helps couples repair relationship wounds, re-build trust, improve communication and deepen intimacy.