Parents should never allow their egos to become wrapped up in their child. Many parents measure their own value and success by their children’s successes and failures. Children behaving like children, not hitting milestones early enough, or not living up to a parent’s unrealistic expectations, can be devastating to these parents and to the healthy development of their kids. The parent becomes focused on what the child can do versus on who the child is.
A perfect example of a parent never satisfied with her son’s accomplishments was the mother of a preteen tennis player. When complimented by another mother about her son’s skills, the tennis player’s mother responded through clenched teeth, “Well, he’s no Roger Federer.” (She was referring to the number one tennis player in the world, a living legend, and perhaps the greatest player in history.)
The mother’s response was typical of a parent desperate for her child to astonish and dazzle the world. Her expectations were destructive to herself and to her child. Her comparison robbed her of the joy of watching her son play, and because even Meryl Streep isn’t a good enough actress to hide the kind of disappointment the mother was feeling, this child’s self-esteem was most likely suffering as a result of her conditional love.
The other side of the coin is the parent who takes all of the credit for the child’s success and creates an entire identity around that child. This parent yearns for an exceptional child. The parent is special because the child is special. The child becomes responsible for the parents feelings of self-worth.
It is important for parents to disentangle their egos from their parenting. As soon as the umbilical cord is cut, children begin their own journey through life and even though hands on, attentive parenting is vital to their growth, children deserve to own both their disappointments and successes. Parents are then able to comfort, encourage, applaud, feel pride and express love.
Taking parenting personally can also make parenting much harder. Unable or unwilling to see the child realistically, the parent misses what skills, manners and behaviors need work, and then the parent gets frustrated and confused when the child acts out. “But my child is gifted, why is he unable to potty train? I must be a bad mother.”
Recently a very well known parenting expert was quoted in the New York Times, “The thing about toddlers is that they are uncivilized,” Dr. Karp says. “Our job is to civilize them, to teach them to say please and thank you, don’t spit and scratch and don’t pee anywhere you want. These are the jobs you have with a toddler.”
To a parent who has their ego enmeshed with their toddler, the Dr.’s insight above would be terribly offensive and even hurtful. Instead of saying, “Yes, that is exactly what I am experiencing with my toddler, and I am really enjoying helping my toddler to become civilized,“ she says, “How dare he say that my child is uncivilized.” The mother is unable to actually see that the Dr.’s statement is not a personal attack, he is saying that her role is vital and it is okay to have a child who doesn’t understand proper social skills, and with her unconditional love and training the child will learn.
Being objective and establishing appropriate boundaries with offspring is an important step towards not allowing ego to get wrapped up in the child. “Helicopter Parents” or parents who hover, are very inappropriately involved with their, often, adult children and have skewed the division between themselves and their child. For example, it has become commonplace for parents to come to the defense of their children who have been given a low grade or have been reprimanded by a teacher. Their ego is damaged when their child needs correcting, and in response they bristle and challenge the professional. The term “helicopter parenting” has been coined to describe these hovering parents.
A true but unbelievable example of “helicopter parenting” happened at a large insurance agency. The father of a smart, well educated and capable, twenty-five year old woman, called her boss to discuss her job performance. Weeks later this same young woman missed a flight to a meeting she was supposed to take with her boss. He understandingly told her that she should go straight to the office and work. Instead she took an 8 hour train ride to the city to try to attend the meeting anyway. When questioned why she did not go back to the office as she was instructed, she responded, “My mother told me that I had to go to the meeting.”
Parenting without ego helps develop healthy self esteem in kids. Children experience their parent’s unconditional love and feel valued for who they are and not what they succeed at. When parents allow their children to be their own people instead of an extension of themselves, children begin to take responsibility for their own decisions, likes and dislikes, good and bad behavior and choices. Establishing appropriate boundaries between parent and child helps the child become autonomous and independent and not feel pressured to excel in the hopes that their parents will feel fulfilled.
An excerpt from a wonderful poem that summarizes this theme is in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.