Are We Over-Managing Our Children?

Trying to control the future is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place / When you handle the master carpenter’s tools / Chances are you will cut yourself” — Tao te Ching

Let’s face it. Even though it’s sensible to plan for our children’s future, we aren’t in complete control. While parents pushed their children and worried about them in previous generations, today’s parents worry that if their children aren’t superstars by preschool, they won’t get into a good college or find a good job. We don’t have crystal balls. Imperfect people with so-so credentials wind up with fame and fortune due to ingenuity and hard work. Many graduates of Ivy League colleges never reach their full potential or have so-called good jobs they hate. This is especially common when parents impose law and medicine on children whose passions and interests don’t match those professions.

As a clinical social worker specializing in self-esteem, I have worked with many Ivy League graduates who felt inferior to their classmates, felt like imposters who had been admitted by mistake, and compared themselves unfavorably with their classmates. Competition and pressure clouded their college experience, distracting them from discovering their passions. Even at midlife, they still feel bad about themselves and seek therapy in hopes of restoring their self esteem.

Being curious and observant about who your child truly is and what activities they thrive on, and reflecting this back to them is a major determinant of their future happiness. Tell your children that you expect them to work hard to meet goals, but also that they can count on your love no matter what. By doing this, you inoculate them against shame, self-hatred, and resentment toward you when times are rough throughout life.

Many parents mistake their own passions and un-lived dreams for their child’s ideal future. If your child isn’t excited by the path toward which you are nudging her, ask yourself, “Is my child more passionate about something else, something I could — and should — encourage instead? Is there a way I could fulfill my own thwarted ambitions even now, e.g., writing about the topic, further education, returning to piano lessons?

In his book The Hurried Child, David Elkind points out that geniuses like Mozart didn’t have parents who decided to create a musician or scientist. They noticed instead what their child was intrinsically passionate about and arranged for those activities that nurtured the child’s own passion and talent.

As a social worker, I am trained to look not just at children and families but at communities, society, and the world. How do we foster healthy competition without making kids think that one bad grade or lost game will ruin everything? If we want to secure our children’s future, we must work with them and others to promote world peace and to save the environment. If our planet doesn’t have a healthy future, our children won’t be around to achieve anything, or to create the next generation.

Here’s an antidote to worry that has helped many parents I have counseled:

Imagine your children as happy adults, successful in love and work. You’re all together for a family reunion on a gorgeous day. A grown child throws an arm around you and says “Remember how you worried that I would end up as uneducated bum! Just look at me now!”

Merle Ann Bombardieri, MSW, LICSW is a clinical social worker/psychothereapist in private practice in Lexington, Mass. She is the author of The Baby Decision and a contributor to Our Bodies Ourselves, 2005. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Bride’s, Glamour, Self and in medical journals.