As summer winds down, many parents longingly await school, yet dread the frustration and disappointment they feel regarding their kids and the resulting guilt over these reactions.
Parents may have a clear vision of their children’s “potential.” When this differs from the kids’ actual performance, parents may fear for their children’s futures. They often become even more unnerved when kids don’t share these visions or worries. It’s enough to make any parent want to shake them into shape.
“Potential,” however, depends on a mix of personality, developmental, and emotional factors. Problems in one or more of those areas can affect kids’ resilience and capacity. For example, bright kids may get poor grades when they are unable to withstand pressure, or when energies are consumed by urgent concerns such as fitting in socially or fear of failing.
Why is it so important that our kids live up to our expectations of them?
The obvious answer is that we want what is best for them.
But what we see in children and what we need them to be may be confounded by fears and biases from our own upbringing. Unconsciously denied or disowned aspects of ourselves can be projected onto others, even our kids. For example, if we feel trapped by responsibility and commitments, we may feel contemptuous of a friend who is making more frivolous choices, thinking, “I would never do that” but secretly being envious.
Worse, if we see evidence of such triggering traits in our children we may get anxious and fool ourselves into thinking we are acting strictly on their behalf. If we’ve always had to be “strong” (in control) or “perfect” we may react to kids’ apparent lack of discipline because we learned these behaviors in ourselves were unacceptable. Becoming determined that our kids prove themselves helps us feel less anxious, regardless of the actual effect on our kids.
I am reminded of Michael, a brilliant engineer, who came from a family of academics. He was pushed hard to succeed, but later became depressed about his own son. Jake was a creative, unconventional kid with a sharp wit and warm spirit, but he wasn’t very driven or disciplined in school, unlike Michael’s brother’s kids. Secretly ashamed of him, Michael continually feared whether Jake would make it in life.
Michael described himself as a “nerd” growing up. He studied a lot but, bullied by his peers and socially awkward, he was lonely. In his struggle to help Jake, who had learning and emotional problems, Michael was pained by feeling ashamed and critical of him. In working with teachers Michael came to learn that his son was a hero at school, who risked his own social status to defend kids from being bullied and, though not always well-behaved, boldly stood up for justice.
Michael’s feelings and perceptions of his son changedand so did the way Jake felt about himselfas Michael came to feel an essential truth about his kid: That he not only had strengths the father did not but that if Jake had been his classmate growing up, Jake would have protected him.
Children come to see themselves through our eyes. Research shows that brain and emotional development is shaped by the interpersonal rhythm between parent and child. Psychologically and neurobiologically, they form their sense of themselves and ability to regulate emotions from how we see and relate to them and ourselves. They internalize our reactions to them, which become the blueprint of how they react to their own mistakes, frustrations, successes and disappointments. Fortunately, brains and minds are molded by experiences throughout life.
We can detect when unconsciously disguised agendas have made their way into our reactions and judgment because we feel a determined, rigid, and anxiety-driven need for a particular behavior or outcome from our kids. We can help children learn to bear frustration and disappointment by bearing it ourselves, letting go of the temptation to rescue them from failure, and maintaining faith and perspective. Responding from positive motivation and acceptance rather than fear will help kids do the same.
Kids are most likely to do their best when parents set realistic goals consistent with kids’ interests and personalities, and focus on valuing and developing their unique strengths. Once the stakes are not so high it is easier for kids to take initiative, test themselves, and persevere without being held back by fear. If children come to see themselves through our eyes, taming our own anxieties and expectations will allow them to flourish. Then we may have the fortune to find what they offer whichthough perhaps not what we had expectedis a gift engraved with their signature.