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How Overachieving Parents Can Avoid Ruining Their Kids' Lives

A psychologist shares four strategies to help parents avoid boxing their kids into narrow definitions of success.

[Photo: Flickr user Ian Ransley]

In the corporate world, success is pretty easy to define. You can tell how well you're doing by your job title, your salary, your company's profit margin, your annual review. But when you come home, how do these notions of accomplishment bleed into how you treat your kids?

Psychologist Shefali Tsbary makes the case that high-achieving people might be unintentionally harming their kids by bringing their attitudes about work into their parenting. "In this culture we live in, achievement, performance, and doing are the hallmarks of our identity," she says. "Striving for perfection and success, as we narrowly define it, makes us want those qualities in our friends, our spouse, and our children."

In American culture, there's been a well-documented shift in the way that children grow up. There was a time when children would come home from school and spend an unstructured afternoon playing in the yard with their friends. Since the 1980s, children's play time has decreased tremendously, as parents have focused on preparing their children for successful futures by packing their days with sports, after-school activities, and other intellectually enriching activities. And the education system is just reinforcing this attitude: A 2007 survey found that 20% of American public school districts decreased their recess time since 2001, redirecting this time toward classes and other activities that promote academic achievement.

Tsabary says there isn't anything wrong with working to improve ourselves; the issue has to do with how we are defining our goals. Overachieving adults who have done well in school and gone on to rise up through the corporate ranks expect their children to follow a similar path. But the problem is that kids don't always share their parents' skill set or interests. "We make our children enter our movie and our perfect picture," says Tsabary, author of the new book The Awakened Family. "But what happens to a child who doesn't follow this script?"

Tsabary says that we can consciously work against our instinct to make our kids fit into our rigid notions of success. But the first step is to commit to being more aware of our own motivations and notions of success. "You have to decide that you are not going to project your emotional baggage onto your child," she says. "I want to be attuned to my child and manifest their inherent script." Then, she suggests the following strategies.

Recognize That Achievement May Not Look Like What You Expect

It is important to communicate to our children that there isn't just one way to be successful. "We tend to immediately create a duality between what achievement looks like and what it doesn't," she says. "We endorse certain qualities as good, such as being fast-paced, climbing up a ladder, being ahead of the curve. If a child has different qualities—they are introverts, they're slower, they're dreamy, they're not motivated in the way we think they should be, or they march to a different drum—then that is labeled as bad. They begin to feel like who they are isn't good enough."

The better approach is to celebrate a wide range of lifestyles and choices. This might involve pointing out how people in very different professions are living out their dream or contributing to society in valuable ways. It means being conscious of not demeaning other people's choices, even if they are very different from yours. This kind of behavior will empower kids to define success on their own terms.

Don’t Expect Them To Replicate Or Compensate For Your Ambitions

When kids are born, their parents often enjoy seeing what qualities their child has inherited from each of them. Does the baby have dad's eyes? Mom's feisty attitude? Later on, we want to see if our kids have developed our facility with language or our mathematical acumen. This is a natural part of having children, but it can have a dark side, too. "We have to ask ourselves with what narcissistic absorption do we indulge that force," she says. "When we start power tripping over the idea that this kid has my DNA, we begin to think of our relationship with them in possessive terms."

It is very common for parents to live out their dreams through their children. This is particularly true when they feel they have failed in some way or are insecure about some aspect of their life. A father who narrowly missed being recruited into a college baseball team might try to ensure that his son makes the cut; a mother who ended up pursuing banking for the money might encourage her daughter to go into the arts. But this behavior profoundly restricts what your children can become and makes them feel boxed in by someone else's expectations.

To counteract this tendency, you might start by rethinking the kinds of activities you enroll your children in. "Instead of focusing on your own fantasies about what you wanted to do or be, ask yourself, what does your child want?" Tsabary says. This means listening more carefully to your child and being perceptive to the things that appear to give your child happiness. Does your son light up when he runs or dances or paints? Use this to guide what you sign your child up for, rather than focusing on your own notions about what is enriching. This is a good starting point for beginning to learn who your child is and fostering a relationship on his or her own terms.

Be Aware Of Other Sources of Stress

Parents aren't the only ones boxing children in with notions of success. This kind of pressure also comes from schools, their friends, and their communities. It's worth being hypervigilant to see how you and your child are being shaped by peer pressure. Tsabary says that a great predictor of how our children manage these stresses has to do with how we cope with this kind of peer pressure ourselves. If we, as parents, are able to rise above these anxieties about not fitting in or not succeeding according to other people's definitions of success, our kids are much more likely to have the capacity to do the same. "You need to be conscious of your own reaction when your child doesn't get invited to a birthday party or picked for the school play or get an A grade," she says. "Is this igniting your own deep-seated insecurities from your own life?"

This awareness will help you to have the right approach when things do wrong. Instead of a bad grade being immediately associated with failure, it might be seen as an opportunity to understand limitations and learn resilience. "It is only when we are able to see through these stereotypical ways of looking at life that we are able to help our children combat them," she says.

How To Encourage Kids To Persevere

But even if you do your best to surround your child with activities they love, there are still times when they need to do things that they don't enjoy or don't excel at. In these cases, Tsabary says it is far more important to consider how the child is engaging with the material, rather than the outcome. Rather than focusing on their grade, the final score at the end of the game, or how realistic their Play-Doh castle looks, it is better to see what part of the process they enjoyed the best and where they became frustrated. Take note when they show interest in a particular aspect of what they are doing, and nurture that excitement.

In some ways, all of her advice is about focusing on the present, rather than on the future outcome. Thinking about success and accomplishment means being future-oriented, but children tend to be entirely consumed with their immediate environment and living in the moment. "Children are pure being," Tsabary says. "They are in the present moment. This is how children come; we twist and turn them into pretzels and make them enter our future-focused agenda. That's where the disconnect happens."

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