The recent college admission scandal brings up many thoughts on today’s parenting challenges. This column is the second in a biweekly, four-part series that explores our deep love for our kids, anxieties we may have about their future and how we can help our kids grow into thriving adults.
We all want our kids to be OK.
What “OK” looks like will be different for every family. Depending on where we live and what our circumstances are, what we want for our sons and daughters varies.
Often what we want for our children can be fear-driven. It comes from a place of scarcity or deficit. It comes from a place of worry. Will my kids be safe? Will they be deported? Will our family be separated? Will they have friends? Will they end up depressed? Will they find a job? Will they find financial success? Will they go to college? Will they go to an Ivy League college?
The recent college admissions scandal brings up the anxieties we as parents have about our kids and their futures. Our fears about who they will become and what they will do in their lives often spur us to act in ways that aren’t always helpful and don’t always send our kids positive messages about themselves.
Where does this come from?
We humans have a natural proclivity toward anxiety. Evolutionarily speaking, worrying about where the next threat was lurking saved our lives. Anxiety is hard wired in our brains. It protects us from danger.
In today’s world, many of us no longer need to be wary of a tiger — or its metaphorical equivalent — jumping out at us from behind a bush. If we live in peaceful communities and families our mere survival is not threatened.
Yet anxiety is present in today’s world, whether as a diagnosed anxiety disorder (18% of the adult U.S. population suffers from anxiety disorders) or as our smaller daily worries and fears. We see it in our parenting, and it can greatly influence our decisions and interactions.
Historically, raising children has moved from an economic benefit in middle-class families (helping in household or other labor) to an emotional one, so we attach greater value to their happiness and emotional well-being. Add to that the drive our society has created in us to be the best and to get ahead, which can be exacerbated by consumerism and media, and parents feel a lot of pressure to raise perfect children.
So we do all sorts of things for our kids that they are capable of doing for themselves or that they are not even interested in having in their lives at all. When we take this kind of control, in a world where lack of control scares us, the path to success is a sure thing. The fewer the uncertainties, the safer we feel.
But at what cost? As psychiatrist and author Dr. Dan Siegel says, we want our kids to excel in school and extracurriculars so they can get into a good college — so they can get a good job — so, what ...? They can get into a good graveyard? What is the end goal?
In pushing our kids to succeed using this narrow definition of success, we put a lot of pressure on our kids and ourselves, often to the detriment of our relationships and our health.
All over the world, including in our own community, there are circumstances, environments and crises in people’s lives that cause parents to truly fear for their children’s safety and future due to poverty, violence, discrimination, abuse, lack of food stability, etc. These are serious challenges that deserve significant attention, resources, compassion and community support.
I don’t want to diminish the anxieties parents in more stable environments feel about raising their kids. Those feelings are real. A survey of 2,000 parents showed that parents spend 37 hours per week worrying about their children, but as the Pew Research Center points out, what parents worry about can be highly correlated with demographics and economic circumstances.
If we live in stable situations, can we step back and honor what is really important, not just to us as parents but also to our kids? Can we consider what it is we really want and what our kids want for themselves?
Let’s admit it: We micromanage, we plan our kids’ lives, we fill their weeks with activity upon activity, we get angry at them for not living up to our expectations, we rescue them before they fail out of fear as much as we do out of love.
Rather than coming at the future of your children’s lives from fear, try coming at it using a strengths-based approach. Work on soothing your own feelings of deficit; try not to project those feelings onto your kids. Plant seeds without pushing an agenda or being attached to the outcome. Let your children discover their own destiny, their own preferences and their own way of moving through the world.
Are they likely to stumble and fall at times? You bet. And this is their path. Without ever stumbling we never learn how to get back up.
Consider cultivating what parent educator and author Vicki Hoefle calls “radical faith” — faith in our kids, in ourselves as parents and in the world at large.
Shift your thinking from what you want your kids to be to who you want your kids to be. Rather than thinking about the outer success you hope your child might obtain, emphasize the character strengths you hope your child will develop. Instead of the college, the car, the house or the job, focus your attention on helping your child develop integrity, compassion, responsibility, kindness, perseverance, resilience or other character traits you value.
And as much as possible, do this without fear. Model who you want your child to become. Let your child unfold into his or her own being. Trust the process. Have radical faith. And by all means get help and support when you need it.
Take a step back. Breathe. Everything will be OK.