I see plenty of adults who are punishing themselves because they aren’t someone else. Most of them started as children who felt punished because they weren’t someone else. This someone else they never were is not even a real person, it’s an ideal. This ideal was communicated to them by their parents and it is an anachronism, a relic, based on expectations, dreams, and hopes that the parent had for their child. Parental expectations and visions of the ideal child are formed before the baby is even born. Every parent develops these hopes and dreams to some extent. Mostly these are based on societal images of success, because for some reason we equate what others view as success as the key to eternal bliss and contentment for our children. So really what parents want is for their children to be happy and content.
So what is the magical recipe for success that our society has for men and women? Based on popular societal views and media messages, success for men is based on things like physical and athletic abilities, financial wealth, and winning the adoration of men and women. For women, success is based on their attractiveness and ability to gain the admiration of men and have beautiful babies. Some in society also want women to be domestic goddesses (i.e. June Cleaver from “Leave it to Beaver”) while others in society want women to be career driven (i.e. Mary Tyler Moore) In addition, successful people (men and women) are supposed to be witty, engaging, and overall fun to be around.
Do these values equal happiness for the very few that “have it all?” Hardly. Do you actually know someone that fits the popular definitions of success? Are those people always happy? More importantly, do you know people who are happy and content, but aren’t anywhere close to the popular definition of success? You are much more likely to find happy and content people who don’t fit the “success” mold than you are to find those who do fit that mold.
Bringing this closer to home, whatever you have in mind for your child’s success story needs to be open to revision. For instance, I had this neighbor in Indiana who was a soccer nut. When his son was born, a tiny soccer ball was put in his crib. When he was a toddler, it wasn’t cartoons that he watched but instead he watched recorded soccer games. By the time he was three, this boy was actually amazing with the soccer ball. So far this child enjoys soccer, which is fitting perfectly into his father’s plans for his son’s success.
But what if this child didn’t like soccer? What if he wasn’t naturally coordinated or just preferred tennis instead? The danger here is that the soccer dad’s son could get the impression that his acceptance is based on his ability to play soccer. This is done by the parent basing his love and acceptance of the child on the condition that he play (and like it) soccer.
Some parents find it very difficult to adjust their expectations to their children’s preferences, joys, and desires. This conditional love is a form of manipulation and control. Whenever people feel conditional love, it’s really hard to feel completely accepted. The end result of a lack of complete acceptance is a childhood doubt that is often carried into adulthood. It’s the doubt or fear of inadequacy. A child raised without acceptance will constantly ask themselves “Am I good enough?” Fearfully, this question will be taken (though never directly asked) to every person that is important to them. This will create unnecessary problems in all future relationships.
In addition to the unmet expectations of parents, another way that children experience a lack of acceptance is through favoritism. When there are multiple children in a family (or multiple grandchildren for the grandparents) and one child is singled out as the “golden child” you can bet a million dollars that any remaining children will be inflicted with the pain of feeling rejected and despised. When one child is favored, the other children get the message they aren’t good enough to receive love and acceptance. Unfortunately, this is a common dynamic in families. Many well-intentioned and very loving parents have unintentionally created a favoritism problem when one of their children (through coincidence mostly) fits the pre-conceived dreams and ideals the parents held for their children.
The more a parent tries to (intentionally or not) fit their child into some ideal mold, the less acceptance the child experiences. When a mother and father work to discover their child’s inner strengths, talents and abilities, that child will grow up with a sense of confidence and self-acceptance that cannot easily be shaken. Parents, this is the scary part of raising children. We have to be very intentional in discovering who our children are and raising them as they should grow. This doesn’t mean that we as parents should accept our children’s unruly behavior or actions that violate family values. It does mean that we need to accept our children’s talents, abilities, dreams and limitations – even when they are different than ours. This is how we are part of the magical formula of success for our children.