“I think we should bring up our children with much less pressure to compete and get ahead: no comparing one child with another, at home or in school; no grades. Let athletics be primarily for fun, and let them be organized by children and youths themselves.” – Dr. Benjamin Spock
I saw a quote on Facebook the other day that bothered me: “I don’t want my children to follow in my footsteps. I want them to take the path next to me and go further than I could have ever dreamt possible.”
Although I understand the positive intent of this quote, I’m sorry to say I sense an underlying message that, to me, is anything but positive, a message that sets children up for almost certain failure and a hefty dose of stress and anxiety in the process.
Why, you ask? Because to me, the idea expressed in this quote suggests a narrow preoccupation with a certain kind of success: significant athletic or artistic achievements; university degrees; respectable, high-paying careers; big homes and fancy cars; perfect health; perfect relationships, and so forth.
Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well and The Price of Privilege, says:
“Every measure of child and adolescent mental health has deteriorated since we’ve decided that children are best served by being relentlessly pushed, overloaded, and tested. Our current version of success is a failure.”
Dr. Levine notes that while a lot of children today look like high achievers, they are, in fact, more depressed and anxious and are experiencing both psychosomatic disorders as well as a sense of inauthenticity. She points out that when asked, parents say success means their children are happy, well-adjusted, and all that other nice stuff. However, when children are asked what constitutes success, they indicate “making a lot of money.” So what’s happening? Do the children’s responses simply indicate a childlike perception of success or are they absorbing (not so) subtle messaging from their parents?
Let’s face it. There are all kinds of children. Some excel academically or possess entrepreneurial skills, others do not. Some are athletic or artistic, others are not. Some are naturally high achievers while others just get by. Some of our children will end up being janitors, service industry workers, clerks and garbage collectors. This sort of work needs to be done, and no one is the lesser for doing it.
Some of our children will struggle with health, relationships, and finances. For those young people with physical or mental health issues, managing to hold down a job, any job, is the best they’ll do, and depending on the extent of those issues, that may be a major accomplishment. Some of our children will be dealing with relationship breakups and custody battles, credit card debt and bankruptcies. Does this mean they failed or, ahem, we failed? At the end of the day, most of us will not have children who reach the pinnacle of professional, athletic or artistic achievement, so why do we try to raise them like that with all the pressure that ensues?
Sure, we all want to see our children do well for themselves and succeed, but I think it’s time to re-define what success means. Rather than pushing our children to excel, be involved in endless activities, go to university, and rise to the rank of CEO, how about letting them figure out their path? How about teaching them to look after body/mind/spirit, be good to people, care about the fate of the world, be independent, live within their means (whatever income they earn), and participate in activities they enjoy?
I know many adults who aren’t working at high-flying jobs, making tons of money, living in huge homes, or driving expensive cars yet are still pretty content. For them, it doesn’t all boil down to prestige and the almighty dollar. Yes, if our children want more material wealth or social status, they’ll have to figure out how to do that, but a lot of them will be happy with less while having more time to relax, be with family and friends, and do things they love.
I have two university degrees, and I’m a federal public servant. I’m happy to have the job I do, and I’m thankful for the great benefits and pension plan. Am I working at my dream job? No, but it works well enough for me. Does my job make me any better than the lady working the cash at the local supermarket? Nope. My education and good job have not spared me from a marriage break-up and a chronic health issue. Nor have they prevented me from making poor choices. I suspect it’s the same for most people, and it will be the same for our children.
I’ve seen many “successful” people who are caught up in the trappings of success while leading unhappy lives. I’ve seen people working very long hours and enduring a lot of stress in order to climb the professional ladder or maintain a certain lifestyle, often at the expense of their health and family. Heck, I’m guilty of working too many hours myself a lot of the time and to what end? I’ve seen people counting the days, hours, and minutes to retirement so they can finally do what they want. Is that what we wish for our children?
I think the best thing we can do for our children is to support them in their interests and endeavours, allow them to experiment, give them responsibility, and let them figure out their path. Let’s stop pressuring them to be perfect and teaching them that success is defined by reaching the highest levels of academic or professional success. Instead, let’s model good judgement and decency. Let’s teach them that life can be hard and that they won’t make it to the end unscathed. But let’s also help them build the inner resources to deal with the issues they’ll face.
Our children have their own lives. They are not here to live the way we think they should and do the things we think they should. They are not here to measure up to a narrow vision of success. And most importantly, they are not here to fulfill our wishes, dreams and fantasies. They’re here to fulfill their own.