Why do we push our kids so hard? We all have the same reasons that we share with others publicly. We want what is best for them. We are older and wiser and know best what they need to do to succeed. We want them to have the life skills necessary to succeed. We don’t want them to make the same mistakes we made. If we do not push, they will miss opportunities, or worse, be a total failure. We need to make them understand how important things like school and work are to their future. It sounds good, right? Noble and altruistic. We are sacrificing to help them to have a better life. We would rather be watching TV or playing golf than yelling at them about the C+ (or B+) they got in advanced algebra.
Who cares? Does the reason we do it really make a difference? The surface justifications do not lose any of their applicability just because the underlying motivation is selfish rather than altruistic. Our kids still don't know what the real world is like and they can certainly benefit from our wisdom (if they listen and act on it). So, can't we continue hiding behind the mask of honorable intentions and parental obligation so that we feel good about ourselves. So we can face our friends with the confidence that we are good parents and making all the expected sacrifices to raise good kids? What would change if we stopped resenting our kids, stopped being jealous of their youth and freedom, stopped looking at them and seeing ourselves 30 years ago?
I have a unique (not really) perspective. I am a parent with an 18 year old and am also a college professor with 18 year old students. I teach a class on career development so the topics I scream at my son about often overlap with discussions in the class. The motivation in class is to help the students prepare for their careers. I want to help them to understand the workings of the job market, including life lessons and unspoken rules (like showing respect to your boss never hurts). I have many more years of experience than they do and want to share it with them so they can build a life with fewer missteps and mistakes than I had. Do these motivations sound familiar? They should, these are the same rationalizations we claim are driving us when we scream at our kids for wasting their lives.
I have been teaching this class for over 10 years and have not once yelled at a student. Even cases where a student had taken out a phone or their laptop and was doing something unrelated to the class (wasting their life?) I merely asked them to pay attention and try to stay focused on our discussion while in the class.
Perhaps I should start screaming at my students. If we believe that it works on our kids then shouldn't I apply it to my teaching as well? 18 year olds don't listen unless you raise your voice and threaten them. Right? You would be hard-pressed to find any pedagogical text advising such an approach not to mention that my teaching career would likely come to a screaming halt.
What if the reasons are all a lie we tell ourselves and others? Let's consider 2 scenarios:
Scenario 1: You arrive home from work, tired and frustrated with your lot in life. Why can't your boss get off your back? why don't clients buy or pay when they say they will? Is that pasta you smell? You had pasta for lunch and don't want to eat it again! As you are walking, sweaty and miserable, down the hall to your bedroom you glance into your son's room as you pass. There he is in all his youthful glory, stretched out on his bed in shorts and a t-shirt looking cool and relaxed. He is holding a game controller in one hand while the other reaches for a potato chip from the bowl on his bed. With no preface, no "hello", you stop and blurt out, "Did you finish your homework?" He replies with a cheerful "yes" and continues munching on chips and playing his game. Smoldering, you scan the room for something else to pick on, "How about your laundry? Did you put that away?" you snap at him. This time he turns and actually looks at you when he says "yes". Where did this kid get that attitude! You think angrily to yourself. “And did you pick up the cleaning like I asked you to do last night?” you sputter out at him. "Oh sorry, I forgot." is his guilty response. And with that missed task you launch into your speech, "I can't count on you for anything! You are wasting your life! When are you going to start acting like an adult!" With your parenting accomplished for the night, you stalk angrily to your bedroom leaving your son confused.
Scenario 2: You arrive home from work, feeling great! The client you have been after finally came through and doubled the expected order with your firm. Your boss thinks you are a genius and complimented you in front of the whole floor and your bonus this year is going to be better than ever. Wait, is that pasta you smell? You have been craving pasta all day. What luck! As you are walking, exuberantly, down the hall to your bedroom you glance into your son's room as you pass. There he is in all his youthful glory, stretched out on his bed in shorts and a t-shirt looking cool and relaxed. He is holding a game controller in one hand while the other reaches for a potato chip from the bowl on his bed. Without thinking you turn in and pat him on the back asking him, “Hey, how was school? What are you playing there?” He responds with a mumbled “fine” and some words that make no sense to you (the name of the game?). You watch him play for a couple seconds thinking how awesome it is to be young and free then remind him to wash up for dinner before heading off to your own room to change.
What changed? He is still lying in bed "wasting his life" playing video games. He probably did not finish his homework and his laundry is likely sitting near him on the floor. Shouldn't you take this opportunity to guide him and teach him the importance of being productive ALL the time?
Obviously, the difference is us. Our approach to parenting and how we deliver the message seems to come more often from how we are feeling at that particular time. If we are in a good mood then we are forgiving and patient. More often, due to the stresses of everyday life, we are in a crappy and depressed mood and take it out on our kids. The more stressed we are with the heavy responsibilities of our own life, the more resentful we become with the “easy” life our kids have thanks to us. They should share some of our stress!
I am not going to get into a discussion on positive vs negative reinforcement now, that is a topic for another article. But I will ask you to be honest with yourself the next time you go off on your kids for being lazy or for some perceived act of immaturity. Is the passion with which you “educate” them coming from your love for them, or is it your envy and resentment for the freedom that you no longer have.