Q. My husband pushes our sons (10 and 16) and daughter (12) to excel in sports. He coaches some of their teams, and when he’s not coaching, he’s that guy yelling at the kids and the referee. He won’t let them quit. He expects them to get college sports scholarships. How much encouragement is too much?
A. Have you considered that your husband might be living out his own dreams? He could be living vicariously through your children.
A research study in the Netherlands at Utrecht University looked at this concept. The study found that the more a parent views a child as an extension of themselves, the more the parent is likely to expect the child to “fulfill their own unrealized ambitions.” Could denying your children the chance to choose activities around their own interests create adult children who—like him—have unrealized ambitions?
Children sometimes develop interests that surprise parents. These interests can lead to excelling at a profession that neither parent would have chosen for their child. For example, the architect for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium became interested in architecture when, as a child, he saw a building that made a lasting impression on him. At the time, he didn’t even know the word “architect,” but he decided he was going to build buildings. His parents didn’t stop his dream, and today he’s a world-renowned architect.
A good question to ask yourself is, “How can I make sure my children get to follow some of their dreams and not just my dreams?” Here are some suggestions:
Listen to your children to discover their interests and help them learn more and do more in their area of interest. One of the best mothers I know discovered her son’s interest in sports cars and unusual cars. She and her husband take their son to many places to see cars and help him research them. Will he continue this interest and turn it into a lifelong career or hobby? No one knows, but his family is helping him follow his passion.
Do something about your own interests that you couldn’t pursue in the past. Take piano lessons, write a book, study martial arts or take art lessons. Do something that fulfills your own unmet goals and dreams.
If you must choose activities for your child, limit it to one or two of your choosing, and let the child have a choice, too. Send your child to a summer camp that is all about one of his or her interests. Allow your child to take lessons in art or music, or join a club.
Mutual interests can provide positive bonding for a parent and child. It’s when you begin to push and even coerce a child into living out your unrealized dreams that problems may occur. Around the teen years, children are trying to separate from their parents and become individuals. Children can become frustrated and even depressed or angry if they are too tightly controlled by parents and not allowed to follow some of their own individual interests. It’s an important part of the parental role to help a child become his or her own unique individual.
We all live a little vicariously through our children. We feel a great sense of pride when one of them receives recognition, earns a blue ribbon or excels at what they do. It’s only problematic when we have pushed too hard and think their success is essential to our happiness.
Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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