Comparing siblings' grades, punishments and hurtful opinions -- these supposed remedies can be devastating.
“A terrible waste!” When Philip talks about his years of studies, he bitterly recognizes that he missed his path. “I am very good with my hands and I always dreamed of having my own cabinet making workshop. It was unthinkable in my family! I had to go to medical school, and I had no passion for it. And here I am, 40 years old, frustrated to practice a profession, certainly one rewarding in the eyes of those around me, but which does not make me happy.”
How many wasted childhoods and missed vocations are due to a parental obsession with excellence? Performance at all costs is a poison that plants the seed for unhealthy rivalries and stormy relationships.
What if we took the time to welcome our children’s grades in a different way and take the pressure off?
Do worried parents raise perfect children?
With unemployment, social malaise, and fear of the future, adults lack confidence and may unwittingly project their anxieties onto their children. Always more, always better: in the parental unconscious, there is the conviction that one must excel in order to survive and succeed in an aggressive world.
John willingly acknowledges this; he demands glowing report cards from his three sons, convinced that he has to teach them, starting in primary school, to be the best, at the front of the pack: “It’s true, I sometimes find myself being hard on them, but they’re going to have to fight in the professional world and I want them to have a place in it.”
Worrying about the future causes many parents to become obsessed with educational perfectionism. Adults can be so anxious that they want to organize everything for their child. This cult of performance that traps children in their school life also plagues their leisure time. From tennis tournaments to baseball trophies, competition is extended even into extracurricular activities, to the detriment of relaxation and free time. “Children have overloaded schedules,” laments one teacher. To always demand the best from your child — isn’t this maintaining the myth of the ideal child, a narcissistic extension of the parent who feels it is his or her mission to help the child achieve what they weren’t able to?
When a child starts school it inevitably sends the adult back to his or her own memories, which are not always pleasant. Disorganized notebooks, aversion to a teacher or bullying, so many buried sufferings that teachers know all too well, start to resurface. In 20 years of teaching, Fiona has reassured generations of anxious parents: “From the very first days, I see overwrought parents. Their child is not in the right class, or I don’t give enough homework. So much stress on our kids can push them past their limit,” she says.
Christine is a school doctor and she sees overworked kids all the time. “A flare-up of eczema before an exam, loss of sleep or appetite. I recently diagnosed a stomach ulcer in a 15-year-old boy.”
Like a plant deprived of light that withers, a child trapped in the parental shadow cannot connect to his or her deepest desires. Either they withdraw, giving up the joy of life and any willpower of their own, unable to decide anything for themselves since their parents decide for them; or they rush headstrong into becoming an over-achiever like Anthony who, at the age of 10, continually reorganizes his backpack and obsessively rereads his textbooks before going to bed. Anthony suffers from anxiety and never allows himself to fail. And what can we do when our young model student, who never seemed to be bothered by the pressure, finally explodes in adolescence? “I lost it last year when I was a senior. I was tired of only doing well in school and nothing else! For my entire childhood, my parents pushed me, but now I’m burned out,” Gregory bitterly explains.
Take a step back, don’t put pressure on yourself and ask yourself the right questions
It’s high time for parents to become … adults. “As soon as the children enter school, parents become parents,” says psychologist Béatrice Copper-Royer. Taking a step back and putting everyone in their rightful place distances the child from the schoolchild and purifies troubled ambitions. Why am I so set on the idea that my child should study engineering? Is it because I see real aptitude in him or her or is it to flatter my ego as a parent? It’s a painful process, but letting the truth in will ultimately reward the sincerely concerned parent.
Chantal and John experienced this when their oldest decided to go into the hotel business even though the family disapproved. “We were ashamed to talk about him in front of our friends. His choice did not fit in with our plans, but we recognized that he had discovered his true calling.” It can also be difficult to recognize that all children do not have the same intellectual ability, and for many parents it is a bitter admission of failure. “I know that Barbara has a hard time keeping up in class. But she has to do it just like everyone else,” insists this mother.
Faced with a young person who is burned out in the school system, should we be stubborn or give up? Through sensitivity and intimate knowledge of what is good for the child, a sound decision presupposes the conviction that a young person’s plans for success are legitimate if they are listening to their deepest desires … which are not necessarily those of the parents! Am I right to push my son to study physics when he has always dreamed of being a horticulturist? Raising a child means supporting him or her all the way, and the key is to believe in the process and regain confidence and peace. Do I believe in Providence and take the time to entrust my children to God who wants the best for each one?
“For a long time I wanted to manage everything myself,” confides Mary Ellen. “Until one day when a priest friend saw I was exhausted and asked me simply: ‘Do you pray every day for your children?’ I agreed to put my worries aside and ask the Lord for peace of heart.”
Tell me how much homework you’ve done, and I’ll tell you how much I love you …
The way forward is not to fixate on what the young person is doing, but to focus on who they are. If adults have been out of school for a long time, they have several ways to get connected to their children’s school: meeting the principal, establishing a friendly dialogue with the teacher, getting involved in the PTA or chaperone school outings. All of these links forged between the school and the family are for the good of the child who feels that his or her parents are concerned. “Ever since my mom has been a parent representative and goes to class councils, she knows my teachers and is interested in what goes on in class … Before, she only saw my report cards!”
Is parental affection measured in grades? Tell me how much homework you’ve done and I’ll tell you how much I love you! It’s hard to have self-confidence when you only exist, in the eyes of your parents, through your results. Sibling comparisons, punishments and hurtful opinions are all destructive behaviors. Changing the way you look at your schoolchild means no longer looking at him or her through the narrow end of the school lens, but instead widening your field of vision to include the whole child. Sabrina doesn’t pay that much attention to her daughters’ grades: “I find it more important to know that they are happy at school and feel good about themselves.”