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The Parent Trap

How biased cognitions narrow our parental perceptions.

Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock
Source: Bruce Rolff/Shutterstock

"The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are."

Carl Jung's early-20th-century assertion transcends time. Many of us arrive at middle age, realizing our life paths are fueled by outside expectations. This insight is disconcerting—often leading to a mental unraveling as we try to find ourselves in middle adulthood.

The challenge of discovering ourselves at midlife has been written about extensively, but what if we apply Jung's maxim to our children? Do most of us allow our kids to develop into who they truly are? Or, do we unwittingly push them toward conformity based on our limited perceptions?

Source: Aaltair/Shutterstock

Lessons From a Little Lamb

Seeing our children diverge from the flock is unnerving. The children's book, Woolbur, thoughtfully illustrates this parental angst:

"Woolbur had a little trouble with the herd today," said Maa.

"What happened?" asked Paa.

"I don't want to stand still with the sheep," said Woolbur. "I ran with the dogs again."

"But those dogs are half-wild!" said Paa.

"I know," said Woolbur. "Isn't it great?"

"They'll run circles around you!" said Maa.

"I know," said Woolbur. "Isn't it great?"

No matter the group or affiliation, as parents, it is uncomfortable to see our children deviate.

Biased Perception

Human perception is a puzzling mechanism. We see things not as they are, but as we are. Our prior experiences and expectations drive all of our perceptions about the surrounding world.

Everything we believe we are seeing is a construction based on our history. As humans, we have not evolved to see the world accurately. Data comes in through our senses but has no meaning.

We must interpret that sensory data, so we assign meaning based on our past. This process of cognition filters through our assumptions and biases to construct our perception of reality. This imprecise method evolved to keep us safe by encouraging the ability to predict environmental changes, thereby reducing uncertainty in a dangerous world.

Does our perceptual system encourage parental tunnel vision?

Many cognitive mechanisms incite quick decision-making. These mental shortcuts enable us to make sense of the world. In the distant past, these shortcuts were adaptative and protected us from immediate threats—like predators. However, some of these shortcuts may be maladaptive in our ever-changing world as they distort our perception and push us toward conformity.

In 1955, psychologist Gordon Allport coined the term "perceptual set" as a "readiness to perceive particular features of a stimulus." Perceptual set drives us to see things in a limited way by encouraging us to notice certain aspects of a situation while blocking out others. Motivation, expectation, emotion, and culture drive this limited perceptual process.

Our perceptual set narrows our ability to move beyond what we already know to contemplate distinctive paths for ourselves and our children. It is challenging to step outside of ourselves and alter our approach to parenting, and most of us are unaware of the narrow bandwidth of our perception.

When is this a problem?

Our inability to alter our perception is highly problematic if we are raising a divergent child—like a human Woolbur. These kids encounter a daily mismatch between their psychological and physical needs and their environment. This incongruence leads to short-term familial turmoil and long-term mental health decline.

Because of our constricted perception, hypothesizing alternatives and permitting our kids to deviate is very difficult. Our desire to reduce uncertainty drives us to stay on a tortured path, and we push them to conform.

What can we do to alter our perception?

According to Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist studying human perception, you need to step into uncertainty. The first stage is to accept that everything you do has biases and assumptions that you bring from your history. Then, you must continually question those biases and assumptions.

If a school, a sport, a club, or an activity is not an appropriate fit for your children or your family, question why you continue to participate. What happens if you consider alternatives?

If you can step into uncertainty and question your assumptions, you will open yourself to a new way of being. You will become an active participant in your environment. The movement to this awareness will feel like the removal of a parental trap.

Revisiting Woolbur

Woolbur's parents insisted that he follow the flock, which made the little lamb miserable. The forced conformism didn't work. The other lambs saw Woolbur's playful attitude and behavior and decided to follow him instead. Woolbur's non-conformity and ability to be playful and see the world differently became the stimulus for his leadership.

Allowing our kids to step into uncertainty and be who they really are may have unforeseen positive outcomes.

Final Thoughts

As parents, our role is to encourage, guide, and teach, but we should be cautious about limiting paths for our children based on our imperfect perception of the world. Challenge the default parenting options and be willing to question your deepest assumptions.

Allowing our kids to develop into who they truly are is a privilege, as Jung suggests. It takes courage, but their divergence may lead to innovative paths that we can't yet imagine. Isn't it great?


Allport, F. H. (1955). Theories of perception and the concept of structure. New York: Wiley.