From the center of your being, you have the answer. You know who you are and what you want.
– Lao Tzu
As parents, we naturally want the best for our children: good health, a financially rewarding career, a happy family, etc. However, in helping them to prepare for the future, could we see them for who they are, instead of who we want them to be? Why do we sometimes impose prescriptive expectations without considering their desires and interests? If we don’t see our children for who they are, how could they be true to themselves?
We probably all know someone (or someone’s child) who devotes hours to doing things that they don’t really like just to please their parents. This problem is prevalent in sports. A common example is when kids spend hours practicing a certain sport just because their parents want them to. Other examples are a bit more dramatized. The movie “Love the Coopers” tells the story of a girl who fakes being in a relationship, just to please her parents on Christmas. Another movie that shows the same concept is called “Farewell”. It’s a Chinese movie, about a grandson staging a fake wedding ceremony just to meet the expectation of his dying grandmother.
Psychologists believe that when children grow up with parents who impose prescriptive expectations, they often struggle with inner conflict and angst.
These struggles will affect their work and relationships for many years to come. Some are eventually able to work through the disconnect and live an authentic life, but some may live a continuous struggle.
At the time, I was too young or inexperienced to question that expectation, so I put my head down and did what expected of me.
I have a personal experience with this struggle. I grew up with two conservative Chinese parents who liked to set prescriptive expectations, especially in school. Neither of my parents went to college, but somehow, they believed that I needed a Ph.D. to be successful. I think this expectation was derived from Confucian culture, which placed a strong emphasis on education. At the time, I was too young or inexperienced to question that expectation, so I put my head down and did what expected of me. After graduating from college, I got a scholarship to study a Ph.D. in Economics at a prestigious school in the United States, however, I found myself lacking the motivation. One year later, I dropped out of the program, feeling both disappointed and liberated. After that, I had to figure out what I really wanted to do and how I would pursue that. Luckily, I figured it out. I went on to pursue a successful business career after getting an MBA, but the transition to do so took nearly ten years.
I don’t want my children to go through the same experience.
When I became a mother, I promised myself that I would guide them directionally without imposing any prescriptive expectations. I wanted them to try different things, develop their own interests, think critically, and find a path to pursue what they wanted. When they were growing up, I listened to what they liked and didn’t like. Most of the time, I supported their decisions. Sometimes, I would urge them to give certain activities a bit more time, but in the end; I accepted their choices.
For example, when my daughters were 4 and 6 years old, I enrolled them in a Chinese school. Every Sunday afternoon, they spent 3 hours studying Mandarin, with more homework for the weekdays. They hated it, refusing to do their homework. I wanted them to learn Mandarin because not only is it part of their cultural heritage, but also speaking another language will give them advantages in their future careers. I asked them to give it one year. However, after one year, they still didn’t like it, so I dropped them from the Chinese school. Now, they regret that decision. They sometimes jokingly say, “Mom, I wish you would’ve forced us to learn Mandarin”. But, knowing that I wouldn’t impose my own expectations, they always felt safe to speak their truth. To me, that is more important than a particular skill they could have learned when they were young.
Seeing children for who they are takes a lot of practice. But the outcome is worth the hard work.
By seeing our children for who they are, not what we want them to be, we are helping them understand themselves early on. They learn to trust themselves and feel safe for being themselves, with a strong sense of self-love. These are critical foundations for the well-being and growth of children.