Just about the only aspect of parenting the old man and I agree on is not to delude our children that they can do anything they want in life, in spite of that particular model of parenting being popular since the time we first had them.
We’ve both made mistakes in our careers and got over them because we’re wise enough to know that flailing around in the regret box serves no-one, but as a result of our choices we’ve always encouraged our children to a) do something they enjoy, and b) do something they demonstrate some talent towards.
Admittedly, it’s not always easy to convey that idea to your kids without sounding negative, especially if you have a dreamer.
This warped idea of lying to our children about what they are capable of has been brilliantly summed up in an article I read this week by Erica Reischer, entitled “No, honey, you can’t be anything you want to be. And that’s okay.”
There has been some interesting criticism levelled recently at what were seen as new-age parenting techniques when we first became parents, such as the end to smacking and enforcement of boundaries, in an attempt to provide our children with freedom of thought to become free-spirited individuals, with their own minds to encourage them to find their own way.
Yet what we see now is what many refer to as an ‘entitled’, narcissistic generation that has interpreted its lack of boundaries to mean that they can do anything. And they are raising their own children in an even freer style. Few of the young parents I know impose the routines we were taught to discipline our children with, and generally have children sleeping in their beds long after they are babies.
That said, being a badass, authoritarian parent doesn’t necessarily work either. I know that from personal experience. Which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that you have to customise your style of parenting to the needs of your child if you can, rather like when you choose your child’s school; unless you have more than two children, of course, when I imagine you go with whatever gets you through the day.
But whatever style of parenting you choose, there’s no guarantee that your offspring will turn out happy, balanced or loving adults. There are too many other forces at work.
When Kurt first became impassioned by music around the age of seven and he told me he was going to become a rock star when he grew up, it was cute. When he was still relying on a rock star future at the age of sixteen and taking the decision to forgo mathematics classes at school – because who needed maths when they would have a manager (?) – I began to have my doubts, and was left with the daunting task of bursting my son’s bubble (just as I had with the Father Christmas bubble), with a reality check.
Interestingly, he refused to accept my reasoning of a back-up plan or my suspicions that he might not be the next Mick Jagger, even though I didn’t do a Kanye West and trod carefully, so as not to completely dispel his dreams. To this day he has never forgiven me for that talk and reminds me constantly of the day I shattered his dreams in each of his diatribes about what an awful parent I am.
But the truth is, should we really be bigging up our kids to think they are special or something they’re not? Should we be encouraging every kid to go to university when those who are pushed to go are likely to come out on the other side massively in debt and with an average-class degree, who still can’t compete with their more academically gifted peers? Aren’t we effectively condoning a waste of three to four years, (sometimes more these days with double degrees)? Which is precious time that could be spent on vocational training, apprenticeships or even travel – options of further education far better-suited to their skill set and personality.
By fooling these kids that they can do anything, we end up with a glut of graduates without jobs and a shortage of blue-collar workers.
And there is also the question of how the pressure we exert on these kids to compete at a level they are simply not cut out for, affects them. And that pressure starts at high school, where every child is groomed for university and those who can’t cope with that goal are made to feel failures or removed from the system in case they screw up the school results.
I’m not condemning ‘pushy parenting’ or parental support, because it has been proven that it is a huge factor in better education results and frankly some kids need a good kick up the arse to help them focus. If I hadn’t been gifted with a son with special needs I would never have seen both sides of this situation.
But kids are coming out of school with false expectations, fed to them by parents and schools, that the world is their oyster. This leads them to a really rude shock in the real world. Many of the kids that then enter the work place are oblivious to how hard you have to work for success, whether they’re a sportsman with natural athletic ability or an entrepreneur with the skill set for taking risk.
As Erica states, ‘Even if the message “you can do anything!” is broadened to include hard work, it falls short,’ because success involves more than a modicum of luck as well, no matter how talented you are.
How many parents do you know who sacrificed all their time and money because their child showed some talent at sport or in academia? And at the end of the school journey, what percentage of those parents had to accept that yes, their child was talented, but not elite enough to turn their talent into a living, once their kids reached their early twenties?
We need to encourage our children, but we also need to keep the pressure in perspective to prevent their egos from free-fall. Is it really the end of the world if a child misses a day of school or a training session?
We went through this with Kurt, who showed some talent musically as a young boy – still does when the mood takes him – but does he have the innate confidence or the work ethic to put himself in the right arena for success? I suspect not, and that’s okay.
Because talent is only one of the tools you need in the toolbox. I myself have reinvented myself a thousand times work-wise, and each time I kidded myself that my non-starter talents could be the next big thing.
Writing is my most recent but I haven’t given up the day job yet.
‘Why do so many of dislike the idea of having average children?’ asks Erica.
In my opinion, therein lies the crux of the problem. We’ve been forced to become so competitive as parents that when our kids become normal adults, we wonder what it was all about. Why was the idea of little Jimmy not shining at something… anything, so terrifying? Because then he would end up just like us, and another generation of our family would pass through history without notability.
But it won’t, because as everyone knows, the true measure of your success when you’re on your deathbed is not which university you went to, but how many of your loved ones are there with you to say goodbye.