Invested or supportive: what kind of parent are you?

If we as parents were asked to write a mission statement for ourselves, I wonder how it would read? Maybe “to raise an independent and responsible child who grows into a constructive member of society”? I wonder whether some of us would be honest enough to include something like “To achieve where I did not.” But underneath, are we secretly hoping for that exact thing?

Many will be familiar with Freud’s theory of parents wanting to see their child “fulfil those wishful dreams… That were never carried out.” This could be interpreted as either a desire for their child to achieve their (the parent’s) own specific dream or, alternatively, a desire for their child to achieve his/her own individual dream, whatever that might be.

This may or may not be true for you. Do you feel that it is your mission in life to make your child’s dreams come true? This mindset gives conscientious parents another thing to keep them awake at night! Gone are the days when the majority of the parenting population were relieved and happy when their children settled into a regular, full time job, enabling independence and perhaps allowing them a small dose of fulfilment along with it.

Exploration and practise are important

No one would disagree with every child being deserving of the chance to do something they really love and believe in. However, it may take a little or a lot of time for some to get to that place. There might be a lot of mundane learning and repetitive jobs on the agenda before the light at the end of the dream tunnel appears. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s as it should be.

Let me draw you a picture. If your child shows an interest in dance, are you straightaway googling local dance schools on your phone, investigating which particular school has the most to offer, or the best reputation etc, instead of allowing a healthy process to take place? This might be to simply let them practise in their room for a couple of months, twirling and pirouetting, until one of two things happen: They move onto something else, or you recognise that this might be worth pursuing.

When I was very young, I desperately wanted to be a ballerina. For what seemed like quite a while (probably a few days in a young child’s life!), I practised in the bathroom, gripping onto the towel rail, and got out books on ballet from the local library. I pored over those books, taking in the muscular physiques and beautiful costumes. However, I never attended any ballet lessons, and managed to move on to other things without too much psychological damage. As an adult, if I really felt I’d missed out, I could have picked up some lessons, but let’s be brutally honest – I am a broad-shouldered, tall woman of Danish/Swedish decent, so whether it was a passion or not, at some point that passion was going to be redirected!

Whose goal is it?

It is one thing to encourage and support our children, and quite another to see it as our personal goal to make things happen for them. I wonder how many parents are overextending themselves financially due to the acquisition of musical/sporting equipment, or lessons for every extra-curricular activity under the sun. When we talk of well-rounded children, this doesn’t need to mean financial investment is required. It could mean an individual child following an interest in reading about a period in history, or having a go at learning a language via YouTube lessons, or asking an available adult with the right skill set to spend some time sharing that skill. In a period of history where we have more online tutorials and helpful information available to us than ever, parents are busier than ever rushing their children from one paid activity to the next.

Our children’s abilities or lack thereof should not be seen as a reflection of our success or failure as parents. That is a very narrow pedestal to teeter on, and one which at any moment could topple us from grace. This is particularly true for families with adolescents who need to question things, try on things that they like the look of, and have room to move. Let’s not get our chests too puffed up, because we just don’t know what challenges might be about to bound around our corner.

Give them time to find out on their own

It concerns me when I hear how many parents are still highly directive of their teenage children when it comes to the choice of college subjects. I am not suggesting that they should have complete freedom to do anything they like, merely that there should be lots of discussion, weighing of pros and cons, and negotiation such as, “Okay, well, if you want to take art and art history, we would like you to take a science of your choice, and…”

There are not many times at this stage of their lives that teens can’t change tack, and the flexibility within the NCEA system now allows students to pick up extra credits in other ways. It is not a matter of life and death. Don’t be afraid of your child taking a little longer to find what they are really interested in, as they can follow a lot of fascinating leads in the interim.

We have been told that our children will need to be incredibly adaptable in their lifetimes, and likely have a number of different jobs/careers. How will they learn to roll with the punches if they have always had the information helpfully handed to them on a freshly printed piece of paper, with key words neatly highlighted? How will they learn that even though they thought they were really interested in a subject, they now realise it's likely to be more of a hobby than a career for them?

It might take a bit more time and effort, a bit more patience from us as parents, for sure. However, the long-term outcome of watching our children grow into adults who fall over and pick themselves up, laugh at the sometimes odd choices they have made and grown from, will be real maturation.

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tips for supportive but not invested parenting:

What do I mean, “invested parent”? Invested indicates a sense of getting something back for what you have put in. This can be a stumbling block in the parenting context, which can exude an attitude of, “After all I’ve done for you…” Alternatively, a supportive parent doesn’t need their child to follow their line, and is not insecure about the idea of them having a different road to walk in life.

  • Prep by pep talk. Give yourself a pep talk before social engagements. These types of occasions can make even the most secure adults shake in their boots. It’s stressful facing questions such as, “So does your son have any idea what he will do when he finishes school?” “Does your daughter intend to go to university?” Remind yourself that it’s absolutely okay to answer with, “We’re encouraging him/her to pursue a number of things they are interested in right now, and who knows?”
  • Beware of scaremongers! Comments like “Oh, my neighbour’s daughter had a year overseas. She found it terribly hard to settle back into normal life and get a job when she came back!” don’t need to be taken on board.
  • Don’t succumb to NCEA panic. There is a lot of confusion around the subject of what your child needs to gain entry into university. This generation has normalised the completion of year 13, and because of this, we can mistakenly think our child has to complete NCEA level 3 or they will not have the same opportunities at university. Don’t forget that not so long ago (when we were teenagers!), university entrance was the equivalent of year 12 (Form 6). Make sure you understand the criteria for uni, as it does differ depending on what degree your child might choose, and if you need help, have a chat to their school dean or guidance counsellor.
  • Steer clear of pre-judgements. It’s good to go into a conversation from the standpoint that your teen may already know what is best for them, not the other way around – don’t presume they don’t have any idea, and need your direction. Show some confidence in their ability to weigh up pros and cons. They may just surprise you! If not, you’ve lost nothing in the process because they will be encouraged that you gave them a chance to be heard and validated.
  • Seek external help: Careers advice, via either the careers advisor at school or through a consultancy firm, is a great idea, and can be an excellent way to give your child an opportunity to explore all the different avenues available. As a bonus, your child has someone who doesn’t know them or their family analyse and state what their skill set is and what they would be good at. This can be a fantastic confidence booster. A small word of caution: If you pay for a careers consultant, they will provide extensive reports and make recommendations as to the most suitable career(s) for your child. This is wonderful, but take care to remain open and flexible. Let your child take the information away to process and do further research. They may still have their own ideas! They will have benefited from the exercise in a number of ways. It will still be money well spent.

An invested parent:

  • Talks first.
  • Has a firm idea in their head of what should be the outcome of the conversation.
  • Doesn’t show confidence in their child’s reasoning abilities.
  • Makes loaded statements, such as, “We would be so proud to see you achieve this…”
  • Finds it hard to trust their child to learn from their own mistakes.

A supportive parent:

  • Listens first.
  • Brainstorms with their child.
  • Hangs back from giving their opinion until their child has had an opportunity to talk. Bite down on your lip if you have to!
  • Affirms their child’s ability to reason and make good decisions.
  • Shows faith in their child.
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