Rev. Dr. Neil O’Farrell reflects on parents’ aspirations for their children.
Consider this scenario: Dad and a son are throwing a football back and forth. Both are having fun. Afterwards, the father affectionately roughs up the hair of the youngster, and says one of two things:
- “That was a lot of fun. Let’s do it again soon.”
- “That was a lot of fun. I bet you could be a quarterback one day.”
One is a statement of satisfaction and a desire to have another good time with his son, but no pressure. The other statement isn’t so neutral. In fact, it expresses a possible goal for the son’s achievement. The son knows immediately the father would be proud if the son reached this high-status milestone. Maybe the son would like that to be his goal too.
Children are good listeners and catch nuance. They are capable of analyzing the different drifts of both above statements. They know the implication of each, even though what the father said would seem to be absolutely innocuous. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is said to give the child confidence to dream very big dreams. However, sometimes it comes out of the parent’s needs and not the child’s. That’s when there’s trouble.
Communication works on multiple levels. Even the infant knows how to get picked up, how to be fed, what to do to be played with. Those skills don’t disappear when the child gets older. They become more refined. Most parents realize that there is a fine line between encouraging a child to develop an aptitude for the child’s own sake, as opposed to asking the child to do something that meets the parents’ aspirations, and doesn’t really fit the child very well at all. Sometimes keeping the boundaries straight creates nothing more than a muddle, and sometimes represents a danger.
Parents say, and I think genuinely most of the time, that what is most important to them is the happiness of their children. If that is not said repeatedly and clearly, children are left to fill the breech. They try to figure out on their own what would make their parents happy, generally not themselves. How many corporate attorneys would rather have been high school teachers? How many investment bankers would have liked to have owned a small business, only profitable enough to support his own family? How many doctors would rather have been cabinet makers?
One of the formative books in my 30s was The Drama of the Gifted Child by psychoanalyst and philosopher Alice Miller. It’s an old book—some 30 years old—but I keep coming back to its insights both personally and in my work. I can’t shake Miller’s insights, though the field of psychology and family dynamics has evolved over the decades.
I recommend the book to parents who are trying to rear children, particularly if the family relationships seem particularly fraught. Miller was controversial at the time. She both expanded and repudiated some of her notions in her subsequent work. While the book seems to focus on the gifted child (whatever that is), I think there are good lessons—maybe just reminders—for every parent rearing children.
This is a complex subject, outlined in a short book. Miller said that, not surprisingly, we often want our children to be cast not necessarily in our own exact image, but rather in a dreamlike, idealized form. We have a desire to rear children in the best manner possible, and to be the proud parents of a truly extraordinary youngster, whose potential is boundless.
Loving, concerned parents want their children’s potential to be fully actualized. Whether the child has the same particular aspirations may not register, or parents may not give a child room to change his mind, or have several careers in tandem or sequentially. It’s hard to be a parent, and it’s hard to be a child. Parenting and growing up were never as easy as sometimes we pretended.
Many parents instill a shadow side that the child internalizes. The child may think if he doesn’t measure up, he will betray the most important people in his world—his parents.
When Miller was writing, child rearing was mostly considered the mother’s realm, although fathers did take a more hands-on responsibility for their sons. Expectations for the perfect daughter were different than for the perfect son, but in the interior lives of children, the pressures were similar.
My parents were afraid that I would grow up and be a musician or an artist. They were terrified of my being gay. I was adept at shading my dreams, so that I wouldn’t upset my parents because my life choices were not likely to make them happy. I knew that while I was very young. I knew about hiding uncomfortable truths, to have secrets.
My parents would have liked my academic accomplishments, but staunchly Roman catholic, they weren’t happy about their son’s being a Lutheran pastor.
That gets us to another point of Miller’s book. Children learn to temper their behaviors, but they do so at the cost of their own emotional integrity. Because much childhood development happens beneath the surface, the family may be unaware of what is happening inside the child. The child lives with the hurt, sometimes over a lifetime.
What will happen when that cabinet maker does his 10,000 throat-swab as the doctor he never really wanted to be? “Every day a little death,” as the musical lyric goes. Doctors have status and income; cabinet makers may have income, but they don’t have much status.
As a minister, I see these dynamics professionally. I know a family with that quarterback son. The son seems like a star on and off the football field. But at times I catch him looking very sad. Even he knows that when he leaves for college, his high school success will be equaled or surpassed by dozens of other high school quarterbacks in his freshman class. You can say the same thing of girls who were the captain of their cheerleading squad.
I was the child of excellent, but narcissistic parents. (Yes, that combination is possible.) From early on, I wondered who owned my life. I knew the answer wasn’t me. I felt I had limited self agency. My life goals just weren’t what my parents had in mind. Even though I’m now following my heart, I’m fighting very old battles within myself. Probably forever.
All children are gifted and require special handling. Child rearing is complicated. Many parents seem to be naturals. All parents need to differentiate between their own aspirations and those of their children. All work and life choices—from medicine to cabinet making—have dignity and deserve respect. Parents can and should guide; children must make the choices. Perhaps different choices at a later date. It is to be hoped that life will be long, and new choices will always be waiting in the wings. The drama of the gifted child doesn’t have to end in tragedy.
Parents seem better about these issues nowadays, but it’s easy to fall into traps. We must make sure that our children feel they own their own lives, and they are capable of exercising independent agency, even at a relatively early age. Children aren’t born and reared to gratify our egos, no matter how worthy our goals may be for them.
photo: renee_mcgurk / flickr