A Delaware Wave reader writes,
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I hate to admit this (that’s why I didn’t sign my name), but I feel like my kid’s mistakes and blunders (he is in second grade) are a reflection on me, as if I have somehow bungled his upbringing. Obviously, I’m as ashamed to feel this way as I am ashamed to admit it. Help!
Let’s get right to the point: If you are secure within yourself, then you will view your child’s mistakes simply as mistakes—not necessarily as reflections of yourself. You’ll try to help him identify, correct and learn from his mistakes.
Apparently you are not secure with yourself. You want to instantly ‘make’ him OK, because if you can’t, then somehow you’re not OK. You’ve obviously got your own problems, but the real damage here is to your boy: You’re sending him the message that his well-being is connected to your own sense of security, rather than to his happiness. The fact that this embarrasses you is at least a small step in the right direction.
The compulsion to turn out “the perfect child” is usually fueled by two factors. One is the parents’ tendency to take the child’s development—or lack of development—personally. It’s one thing to feel pride in raising your child properly. It’s an entirely different thing to feel that it’s a reflection of your own lack of self-worth when your child doesn’t do well. A friend once told me, “It was hard growing up because my success or failure in any endeavor was all about my father—not about me.”
This leads a child to focus not on what he wants to do, but more on pleasing others. As a child, he will dwell excessively on pleasing the parent. As an adult, this emotional problem will manifest as trying to gratify others instead of trying to please himself. It’s neurotic and unhealthy, and it distracts him from trying to excel without the added pressure of making everybody else happy. Life is hard enough without compulsively striving to satisfy your boss or a colleague or (at the root), your mommy or daddy. Any success that is achieved will not be very rewarding, and will be hard to sustain. This is often the reason why many talented and gifted people, despite their already impressive accomplishments, exhibit psychological symptoms such as drug or alcohol abuse to cope with their anxiety.
The other reason for this “perfect child” syndrome is the unspoken philosophy behind most education. Public and private schooling in our society is generally based on a classroom model in which “socializing” the child to the ‘group’ is deemed more important than training the individual to use his or her mind confidently. Some home-schooling and Montessori educational approaches focus less on “socializing,” and have been proven to turn out kids who score better on standardized tests and generally develop greater intellectual self-confidence. They tend to fare better than those who are taught to fit in as “good little citizens.” A child cannot fully develop intellectual self-confidence unless the parent genuinely believes in the importance of the child’s ability to independently use his or her own mind.
If three year-old Johnny isn’t interacting with other children the way his three year-old neighbor is, a rational parent will NOT see this as an indication that he must be shoved into a ‘special’ social group where, more often than not, nothing more than bad manners and germs abound. The rational parent will encourage the child to reason and observe both himself and the social and natural world around him. If the child has no confidence in his own mind, then of what value is it to take pride in the fact that he’s interacting with other boys on the playground? Or that she’s playing with toys considered cool by her friends? Give the child time to grow intellectually, and the socializing will follow.
Socializing should be a consequence of good intellectual development, not a cause. A healthy child will eventually want to socialize—and not with just anyone. He or she will choose friends for mindful, objectively sound reasons. Parents are advised to do two things. First, check their assumptions about educational philosophies and what really motivates them to have their kids attend certain schools. Second, remember that kids are autonomous, independent beings with minds of their own. Of course they must be guided and sometimes even told what to do, but at the same time, this guidance must be geared toward what’s best for the child—not for the parents’ egos. Even young children make choices, and their errors, in most cases, are not personal attacks on their parents. The parenting process should be beneficial for both parent and child, but in any conflict between what’s best for the child and what’s best (or feels best) for the parent, the child must prevail.
You need to set aside your fragile ego, dear anonymous reader, and foster in your boy a well-trained, self-respecting mind, along with the attitude that the world is a potentially knowable and happy place. This training and respect must be for HIS benefit and development, not yours. This is the greatest—and only truly long-term—contribution any parent can make.