by: Andy Gear, PLPC
“Since teaching college I’ve been amazed at two things: (1) how deeply young adults want their parents to be proud of them, and (2) just how deeply parents communicate, directly or indirectly, that their kids are not good enough. . . . I may invest in a dry/wet vac for my office. They believe their parents love them but don’t believe their parents are proud of them.” –Dr. Anthony Bradley
My wife and I are having our first child in less than a month, and we are very excited to meet her! Awaiting her birth has stirred up all sorts of emotions in me. I have so many hopes, so many fears, and so many desires for this little person.
I want to have a happy and healthy baby, as all parents do. But I have other hopes and desires as well. My wife and I often lie in bed at night and dream about what our little girl will one day be. We dream of her being a special person: smart, funny, sensitive, doing something we think important (becoming a doctor, a professor, or the President of the United States).
But where do these desires come from and are they good for our developing child? We think she should do special things because she is special to us but also because of our own unfulfilled desires. If we are disappointed with how our life turned out we might desire that our child do what we were unable to accomplish or be the person we wish we were.
The problem is that this completely ignores the humanity and uniqueness of our child. Shouldn’t she have a say in this? This may not be who our child is. She is a little person, not a vessel through which to meet all our unfulfilled desires. It is normal to have dreams, but it can be harmful to have goals or expectations for another human being.
The professor (quoted at the beginning) made the point that well-meaning parents place too much weight on their child’s performance. We put subtle pressure on our children to be an academic, spiritual, athletic, social, or financial success. We make our child’s performance part of our own identity. So we send subtle messages to our children about the conditions for their acceptability.
Our children begin to sense that we are only proud of them when they meet the expectations or goals that we have for them. So they often try to become what we want them to be—to varying degrees of success. But this is done at the expense their own identity and happiness. When they don’t fit the mold we set for them, they feel as though they are failures and are not free to pursue who they truly are.
Just because our child is special to us, doesn’t mean that it is not acceptable for them to be ‘ordinary.’ Not everyone has to be a doctor, a CEO, or the President of the United States. It is enough for them to be themselves. Of course we want to nurture them and provide an environment where they can flourish. But we must be ok with them being who they are. If we are not, they probably won’t be either. They will go through life believing that they are not good enough, don’t have what it takes, or are defective. They may suffer from low self-esteem or anxiety about their performance. Our expectations may rob them of the joy of enjoying who they are.
The messages we send our children, as parents, are extremely powerful. Our words and actions can send the message that they are acceptable because of who they are, not what they do. Or we can subtly poison them with the message that they are only acceptable if their performance matches our expectations.
Though I may not dream of my daughter being an emotionally reserved janitor, what if that is who she is and chooses to be? Would I celebrate who she is? Or would I subtly communicate that she needs to change in order to make me proud? When I expect her to be someone else I am doing violence against her own unique humanity. She is her own person, and I want to help that person flourish.
I don’t want to create an environment for my daughter that leads to her crying in her professor’s office because she doesn’t think she is living up to my expectations. Though I have hopes and dreams, it is unfair for me to have expectations or goals for another human. She gets to decide who she wants to be, and I have the privilege of helping foster her unique self. I want her to flourish, but I don’t get to decide how she flourishes. She doesn’t have to be the best at anything to make me proud. She will make me proud by just being who she is.