“Even though we say what we want most for our kids is their happiness, and we’ll do everything we can to help them achieve that, it’s unclear where parental happiness ends and our children’s happiness begins.”
– Psychologist Lori Gottlieb (2011, p. 70)
Nearly a century ago, Carl Jung, one of the pioneers in psychology, made an observation that is every bit as true today as it was back then. He wrote, “Children are driven unconsciously in a direction that is intended to compensate for everything that was left unfulfilled in the lives of their parents. Hence it is that excessively moral-minded parents have what are called “unmoral” children or an irresponsible wastrel of a father has a son with a positively morbid amount of ambition, and so on.” (Jung, 1995, p. 557)
Many parents approach childrearing as though they are training a protégée; someone who will be successful in all the ways that they wanted to be. Some parents go so far as to plan out what college a child will attend, what extra-curricular activities they will excel at, or what career they will go into before the child even knows how to read. This isn’t a good approach for parents to take (rigid, inflexible expectations about life will always lead to disappointment), and it isn’t healthy for the kids, either.
Why It’s Important to Let Kids Live Their Own Lives
Children who grow up feeling as though their life has already been laid out before them suffer unnecessary stress. The pressures to conform can make them more insecure (not more competent). They experience more unhappiness, since they’re forced to pursue goals that are not their own. And in most cases, they’ll begin to resent the activities in question as well as the parent who pushes them.
Parents should push their children to be the best they can be. But they should push them according to the child’s interest and aspirations, and not narcissistically lean on the kids to live out their own unfulfilled dreams. We should all do our best to follow the advice of Randy Pausch, who authored the famous Last Lecture before dying of cancer, when he warns: “As a professor, I’ve seen how disruptive it can be for parents to have specific dreams for their children. My job is to help my kids foster a joy for life and develop the tools to fulfill their own wishes. My wishes for them are very exact and, given that I won’t be there, I want to be clear: Kids, don’t try to figure out what I wanted you to become. I want you to become what you want to become. And I want you to feel as if I am there with you, whatever path you choose.” (Pausch, 2008)