The Crushing Culture of Parental Expectations

We need to choose our words carefully especially those we offer our children. I’d like to think it was carelessness rather than thoughtlessness that led me to create a culture of crushing parental expectations. Over the years I developed a habit of saying things to my sons like, “You’re going to do great things.” or, “You’re going places, kid.”

I expressed these types of sentiments in an effort to demonstrate to my children that I had confidence in them and their abilities. I also said these things with full knowledge that the pressure that society places on teenagers these days, the pressure for them to be superlative in everything they do, is detrimental to them.

We can stress out our teens with our parental expectations
Don’t crush your kids with your expectations. (Photo credit: Firesam!)

There is pressure in every facet of kids’ lives

The pressure to excel is ubiquitous and it’s not just pressure to excel for the sake of becoming excellent in something; it’s pressure to be “the best” for the sake of earning some type of recognition. There is pressure on the sports field, in extracurricular activities and certainly in academics. Sometimes, we are unaware of the yoke of expectations we foist upon our kids.

Making musical phenoms was never my aspiration. In fact, one of my sons took piano lessons for two years. He never practiced. I never cared. I wanted him to simply enjoy that one-hour of instruction a week. It was my goal to expose him to piano NOT to turn into a pianist. As it was, after two years of me dragging him to lessons while he whined like I was boiling him in hot oil, I caved to his desire to quit. I sometimes worried about the serial quitting of activities, but not much.

I was equally uninspired about athletics. I guess I was “fortunate” that I had children who declared early and often that they would never excel on the sports field. Other parents told me in ominous undertones that if I didn’t sign my child up for soccer at the age of three his foot skills would be forever lacking and we could just forget about competing with the other boys. I didn’t care. To me if they chose to play a sport it was simply about learning to be on a team and getting some exercise. Nothing more.

[More on whether to let your child quit an activity here.] 

I put academic pressure on my kids

But academia was different. School was our sweet spot and in the academic arena I was swept up in the hysteria of best grades, best school, best job and best life. With each good grade they received, I would reassert for my children my conviction that they were bound for glory. Recently my son anxiously asked me, “What if I don’t do great things with my life? What if I just become a lawyer?” I realized then that I had no idea how insidious my words had been. My words had been impactful but not in the way I had intended. To my son the words I so cavalierly uttered had created a parental expectation, an expectation he clearly felt he might not be able to meet.

That is why I will no longer tell my sons that I expect greatness from them and I will no longer suggest to them that they will set the world afire. I actually have no idea what their future will bring.

Here are my expectations of my kids

Instead, I will tell them that I have the following parental expectations:

I expect you to work diligently and to take advantage of the opportunities that life has given you. I expect that you will fail but that when you do you will pick yourself up and try again because success is about stringing together more good days than bad and the only way to do that is to plough through and learn from the bad.

I expect that you will prize goodness above greatness and that you will be kind and thoughtful to all people. In that vein, I expect you to flex your philanthropic muscle even when you don’t think you have the resources to do so.

I expect you to learn for the sake of knowledge, to play for the sake of joy, to give of your time and money for the sake of others and to do it all to meet your own expectations and no one else’s.

To love and be loved is my greatest expectation for you, and my greatest hope.

About Helene Wingens

Helene Wingens has always been passionate about painting pictures with words. She graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in psychology and three years later from Boston University School of Law with a Juris Doctor. In a year long clerkship for an appellate judge Helene honed her writing skills by drafting weekly appellate memoranda. She practiced law until she practically perfected it and after taking a brief twenty year hiatus to raise her three children she began writing a personal blog Her essays have been published in: Scary Mommy, Kveller, The Forward, and Grown and Flown where she is Managing Editor. You can visit Helene's website here

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