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.