Parents often exclaim that they are so proud of their children. “She got into Harvard.” “He got the highest SAT scores.” “She is the most brilliant musician.” “He is the captain of the football team.” Parents particularly express pride in their kids when they demonstrate a talent or quality that the parent values. And while we all want parents to think positively about their children, when parents make these proclamations, it often seems more about them than their child. They bask in the glow of their child’s accomplishments, feeling it reflects on them. They fail to see their child as a separate person who owns his or her own accomplishments. This can leave children longing for real acknowledgment or a feeling of being seen for who they actually are. It can cause them to feel like their accomplishments belong to their parents, or that, in an attempt to earn their parents' love, they have to keep performing.
Kids may perceive that what their parents value is more important than who they are or what they want. They may not get the feeling that they are valuable as a person, but rather as a performing object. So, how can parents make the distinction between admiring their children’s achievements/wanting to acknowledge them and overstepping their kids’ boundaries/taking ownership of their accomplishments? One of the ways I try to help parents make this distinction is by comparing pride to admiration. While pride refers to a feeling we have for someone as they relate to us, admiration exists independently of this connection.
When parents over-involve themselves with their child’s activities or achievements, they can actually act as a barrier between the child and his or her unique experience. Very often, parents connect to their child in ways that are unintentionally intrusive or possessive. This can be a hard pattern to catch on to, because something like coaching or attending every basketball game your child plays in sounds like a good thing. However, there’s a difference between watching the games and emotionally involving yourself in every win or loss. Parents who shout at the ref from the sidelines or whose mood depends on their child’s performance are treating the game as if they’re playing it themselves.
Parents should try to be attuned to how caught up they feel in their child’s achievements and wary of the times when they cross the line from appreciating their child as a separate person and feeling like the child is almost a part of them—that the child’s achievements are their achievements. For example, when a child is drawing, there’s a big difference between the parent saying, “Look at all the shapes you’re making. I really like the blue triangles. Can you show me how you drew that?” and saying, “Wow, that’s so beautiful. You’re mommy’s little artist. I’m gonna show everybody what you drew for me.” I’ve talked about the problems with offering a child false praise, but one major issue is that it can make a child feel like the achievement isn’t their own—like it’s really all about the parent. This can have a negative effect on the child. I’ve known several kids who’ve actually dropped out of activities they used to love—a sport they excelled at or art forms they were involved in—just because they felt their parent had taken over.
Another problem with pride is that it can come off as pressure. As parents, we can be demanding and critical or praising and prideful, but both sides of the coin can have the same effect; they can make our child feel pressured and disconnected from their own undertakings and accomplishments. Children may feel they have to achieve in order to win their parent’s love. They may feel the added pressure of the parent’s own expectations and how they reflect on their parent.
Parents don’t intentionally do this to hurt their child. Sometimes, they offer praise and build-up in an effort to be encouraging. Perhaps, they didn’t feel supported by their own parents as kids, and they have a tendency to try and compensate. Parents over-involvement with their child’s accomplishments can also stem from parents not feeling good about themselves. They may turn to their children to provide them with self-esteem. They may have a need for their child to accomplish things for which they never had the opportunity or support in an attempt to be connected to the accomplishment. My father, psychologist Robert Firestone, has developed the concept of a “fantasy bond” to help parents understand their exaggerated desire to connect with their children. A fantasy bond describes an illusion of fusion between two people that replaces real love and relating. This bond can create a false sense of security, however it can also impair the child’s budding individuality and actual sense of their own separate identity.
In order to break this destructive bond or tie to their child, parents must be willing to truly view their child as a separate person. Parents can become more aware of the ways they connect by paying attention to the language they use with their child. I’ve had parents of high-school graduates say, “We got in to Berkeley this year.” When we speak about our child, we should be respectful of their individuality. We can also try to make our language less evaluative and achievement-based, in general. A child is developing at a rapid rate. Labeling them or deciding “she’s an athlete” or “he’s an artist” at an early age doesn’t always allow kids the space to find themselves. Moreover, when their praise is achievement based, parents aren’t saying to their kids, “You’re worthwhile.” They’re saying, “Your achievement is worthwhile.”
Parents can catch on to ways they may be over-connecting by noticing when they feel extra attached to their child’s interests or are starting to have that feeling that the child is an extension of them. They may see their child as reflecting on them and feel either overly critical and embarrassed or prideful and accomplished. Children often feel hurt when they don’t feel seen by their parents. When parents only see themselves and their hopes and dreams in their child, they’re robbing themselves of the real joys of knowing their child, and the child is missing the essential experience of being known.
The more parents can appreciate and admire their children separate from themselves, the better off the child will be and the better off the relationship between child and parent will be. Parents who want their children to experience success should praise effort over achievement. They should provide all the support they can for whatever lights the child up, and then, allow the child to pursue that activity independently. They should lead by example, working hard, being kind, warm, and affectionate to their child. They should show their kids that they love them for who they are as people and not for how they reflect on them as parents. In these circumstances, the child will feel acknowledged and appreciated for who they really are. They will feel more connected to their accomplishments and more motivated in their pursuits, having a strong sense of their own identity.