I’m devastated, but I think I’ve actually been raising my kids to feel ‘not enough’. Are you doing it too? Let me explain.
After another loud fight with the eldest last week (I really need to learn to keep my cool better), I had an Oprah-aha moment. A sudden thought that has changed everything for me:
“The person you are is different to the child I thought I was raising.”
You could say that I finally saw my teen for the person he is, rather than the person I thought I wanted him to be. I am quite convinced that the gap between who my son is and who I wanted him to be is where much of our conflict lies.
I was quite horrified, of course. How could I not have seen my child properly? We’ve only been together for 14 years. I’ve only raised this kid from day dot, taught him everything he knows… wait a minute.
That’s little kid stuff. That’s the basic difference between raising little kids and raising big kids. Once our children are older, we are not their whole world, their be-all-end-all, their magnificent nucleus. We do not teach them everything they know. We don’t even know everything they know.
So it stands to reason that if we are not careful – if we don’t listen and observe instead of always telling and guiding – we very well might find ourselves mangled in the gap between ideal and actual.
And smack bang inbetween this “ideal person” and “actual person” is the message “you’re not enough”.
The best you possible
You will notice that I used the past tense when talking about this aha moment. I say “the person I thought I wanted” rather than “the person I want”. That’s because the moment I stopped trying to mould my son into my version of the person he should be, I realised that the person that he already is perfectly wonderful. He’s already enough.
In the back of my mind, I always knew this, of course. He’s a tops kid, my kid. I guess I just wanted him to be better.
Better at school.
Better at people.
Better at sports.
Better at manners.
Better at pretty much everything you can imagine.
“I want you to be the best you possible,” I say to him.
To which one day he replied, “You actually want me to be the best you possible.”
You would think that might have been my aha moment, right there. But we don’t choose our ahas, any more than we choose the kind of people we are raising.
We invest a great deal in our children – more so in today’s society than in any other. As much as we try to deny it, there is the expectation that we will somehow get a return on that investment. A somebody who matters in the world, doing good work somewhere in something.
You can bet there will be parents who can fill in the italics in that sentence without batting an eyelid. My ambitions for my children are present, but vague. Some kids live with the weight of very specific expectation that must feel heavy indeed.
The message we give is “you’re not enough”
The pressure to be exceptional may well be robbing our kids of the gift of being themselves.
Every time I fix my kids’ hair, question their wardrobe choices, urge them to get better grades, suggest a new activity, urge them to do something different… Though well-meaning, the truth is that I’m basically telling my kid that whatever they are actually doing isn’t good enough. I’m telling them that I don’t like their choices, the way they spend their time, or the way they are in the world.
There’s no question that we love our kids unconditionally – but can we say the same thing about liking them?
Unconditional like is actually much harder than we ever imagined.
We place expectations on our kids that we have to concede are unattainable for the average person. We ask them to do things that we wouldn’t be comfortable doing ourselves, then criticise them when they refuse or fail.
Putting down the ‘not enough’ burden
I think we can all agree that it sux to not see your kid. And no one wants to accidentally give their kid the message they’re no good enough.
We can justify that we’re doing so much better than we actually are, but the truth is that we are probably all guilty of trying to engineer a “successful” person, however we define success. The amount of pressure we put on our parenting skills in order to do that is tremendous. We are 100% setting ourselves up to feel guilty and defeated. Worse, we are 100% setting our kids up to feel like they’re not enough.
But how can we stop letting our expectation of raising the ideal person get in the way of our actual children? Here are five thought starters:
1. Get to know each other
It seems obvious, but I think it’s easy to lose our way with this one. Having a real conversation – one without judgement or opinion – isn’t something that easily happens between parents and kids.
We get so caught up in everyday life that making space for bigger picture thinking is as difficult as it is important.
I can highly recommend watching the way Jada Pinkett-Smith interacts with her daughter Willow on Red Table Talk. Non-judgmental parenting at its best.
Start here: 100 conversation starters
2. Listen, don’t talk
I interrupt my kids a lot. It’s something I’m trying to stop.
There are many reasons why I do it, but I know that not liking what they have to say is probably #2. (#1 is when they do that verbose, tangent thing that means they take 20 minutes to say something that a single sentence would cover… the interruption is justified in this case.)
When we stop what we’re doing (and thinking) and truly listen to our kids, we are giving them both our attention and the space to be themselves. Fact: you can’t listen and give your opinion at the same time.
3. Pause before opinion
When I’m quick to blurt out my own thoughts, it means I’m not respecting my kids’ opinion. I am learning to pause before offering my advice.
Most of the time, the best way to remind myself to pause is to simply ask my kid instead, “What do you think?”
4. Respect their cred
As much as values are important, to an older kid, the value of fitting in is probably going to override everything else for a while.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as “a phase”, but that’s not being kind. Rather than scoffing at them going through something we’ve grown to learn is a bit nuts, it’s important to remember how we felt at this age.
Instead of the lecture about jumping off a bridge, etc, we can simply say, “I remember doing that with my friends too”.
5. Begin with values
When we approach the world with our values top of mind, rather than leading with our opinions, we find we have much less to concern ourselves with.
We need to talk to our kids about our own values and ask them what they value the most. This allows us to be much more gentle in helping them frame behaviour.
For example, my middle daughter says that one of her key values is family, so when she locks herself away in her room for hours on end I simply ask, “Does that support your family value?” We see a lot more of her for a while.
How do you make sure you see your child?