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Curbing Too-High Hopes for Children’s Success

Why and how to curb parental fantasies for children’s futures.

Parents have fantasies about babies before they are born. While the fetus moves about in the womb, parents make predictions: “This will be a very active baby; this one’s going to be a serious athlete.” 

All parents want their children to succeed, but with parents of only children, the tendency can be so focused and the level of expectation so high that it becomes counter-productive.

Chances are your only child will do well in one or more areas because of the special opportunities and attention singleness affords. Only children show up with more frequency among leaders; they tend to be intellectually advantaged and as socially well-adjusted as children with siblings.

Everyone, especially children, needs something to strive for. But, there’s no need to turn child-rearing into a competition in which your child must be the best–best academically, best athletically, best dressed, or best all-’round camper. If expectations are too high, a child’s self-confidence may be undermined when she cannot reach parental goals, and her desire to succeed may vanish.

No matter how much you restrain your fantasies for your child’s future, they’re there. When you let go of these fantasies and embrace your child as he or she is, you will gain endless rewards from your child in respect, love and consideration. Delight in her accomplishments and minimize her shortcomings as they surface. Children benefit most when parents temper their dreams.

Warnings Signs: Pressure Too Much

As I point out in Parenting an Only Child, singletons expend great amounts of effort and energy to please their parents. Onlies can be very hard on themselves and rarely need additional pressure from their parents.

Andrea Balfour, interviewed as part of the research study for the book, endured pressure for years before she got out from under it. In grade school, she recalls, “Once I asked my father to listen to a poem that I had to memorize for a class. The first time I went to him, I really didn’t know it and he told me not to come back until I had it perfect. Only perfection was allowed. I performed perfectly until I left Tennessee to go to college. I almost flunked out after my first semester. Away from the constant observation of my parents, I felt free. I wanted to have fun and I did.”

Over-emphasis on excellence is relatively easy to spot in the school-age child. You can tell you are too demanding when your child turns to your spouse on a regular basis for entertainment, consolation or affection. A young child will walk away from the parent who insists that a dive be executed precisely or book be read without errors. She will march to the parent who accepts her skills at her level.

A drop in the quality of schoolwork, extreme sensitivity to mild or constructive criticism and a lowering of his own standards are also indicative of an over-stressed child who is trying to live up to a parent’s desires. If he feels—or says—he’s lazy or dumb, if he appears to have stopped trying, you may be driving him too hard, or expecting too much.

If this happens, pull back. Join forces with your spouse or significant other to start fresh and ease up. Block out time so that the three of you can be together doing something enjoyable or sharing a task. You might start a garden, clean a closet, paint a room or piece of furniture to remove the focus from whether or not your child is doing well.

Look at Yourself

Parents impose unrealistic expectations on their children for various reasons. Parents face their own childhoods while watching their children grow, and in doing so some want their children to have the successes that once eluded them.

Evelyn Hanna spent long periods of time agonizing before she understood. “The first blow came when my son entered second grade. The teacher put him in the slowest reading group. I was sure she had made a mistake and insisted that Neil be retested. In my head he was going to be the academic fireball I had dreamed of being. With the help of the school principal I learned to focus on his positive attributes–his popularity, his athletic abilities and warm personality. Those should have been enough for me from the beginning.”

Whether or not your child excels academically, she probably has strengths you can encourage and in which you can take pride. Being a role model by expressing contentment with your own pursuits is more effective than expressing your hopes for your child or being a tough taskmaster. Demanding performance from a child who may not be capable of meeting your expectation or interested in it is frustrating for everyone and could create a backlash whose effect might not be seen for years.

Also of interest: Raising “Star” Children: The Pressure May Be Too Great

For more on raising singletons, see Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only and The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide   

Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman

photo credit: <a href="">Vince Alongi</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Success Redefined