A mother tells her son, as she packs his lunch in his backpack and sends him off to school, “You’re very special, darling. You’re smarter than any kid in your class. So don’t worry about the test today, because you’re going to get an A.” And he says, “Thank you, mom, I needed that. It makes me feel good.” But, inside and unconsciously, he says to himself, “That’s all I needed. Now, if I don’t get an A, I’ve let her down, I haven’t lived up to her expectations. Her words are frightening. She’s so important to me that, when she builds me up, it puts tremendous pressure on me. What I want her to say is, ‘Hey, go out and take the test. You’re smart, you’re great and don’t worry about it. You worked hard and whether you get an A, B or C, it’ll be wonderful, because you’re wonderful.’”
You may be apt to say, “Wouldn’t that give him license to underperform? Don’t you think it’s important to stress achievement and provide encouragement?” Sure I do. But, when you heap excessive encouragement on highly driven, perfectionistic individuals, it can prove to be as destructive as excessive criticism. It either pulls them down or impedes them from ever rising to the top. It’s the same for husbands and wives or friends you encourage excessively. When praise is overdone, it’s either viewed as unbelievable or seen as a burden, even when it’s deserved, i.e., after you’ve just gotten a promotion, a raise in salary, or a scholarship. Why? Because it says, “I’ve got to continue to be this great. I can never slip, err, or fail.” As a result, your attempt to encourage only causes someone to mistrust your sincerity or to be discouraged regarding their ability to live up to your expectations.
Years ago, I saw a woman in therapy whose marriage was in shambles. She stayed with her husband only because she was too frightened to be on her own. As a result, her son became her pride and joy. He was a very bright, capable young man who excelled academically. However, her emotional involvement with her son was both excessive and a form of compensation. The encouragement, accolades and praise that should have gone to her husband went to this youngster. Consequently, he initially excelled but, over time, he didn’t even bring his test results home. He never spoke of the compliments that were given him by his teachers and principal. He became a national merit scholar and received a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, but never told either of his parents. Later, when he learned of an article his mother had written in a local newspaper about his accomplishments, he turned down the scholarship, dropped out of school and became an organic farmer. The irrigation system he developed for the land he farmed was so unique and technically sound that he was given another scholarship, to an engineering school, which he accepted, without ever telling his mother. She was a woman who meant no ill, but her life was lived through her son. It was a burden that was far too emotionally heavy for him to carry. In her eyes, she only tried to make him feel good. She thought her actions demonstrated how proud she was of him. However, in his eyes, she only wanted to control him, to ensure that he did the “right thing the right way”, i,e, her way, so that she could wear his achievements on her chest.
When I suggested this to her, she became indignant. ‘How in the world can I do the right thing, so I make him feel the right way?”
My statement was, “That’s the whole problem. You think that what you’re doing is to make him feel good, but what he sees is you trying to make you feel good.”
“If that’s the case, what does he want to hear?”
“He wants praise. He wants acknowledgment, but he wants it because you’re giving it to him, not demanding it of him so that you can take credit for his behavior.”
‘I don’t understand you or him. Just the other night, we were watching tv and it was a football game. The coach was saying to the player, ‘You’re great. You have a unique talent. I’m proud of the way you’ve developed it.’ My son said, ‘I can’t believe he’s doing that to him.’ I said, ‘What? He’s just being nice to him.’ He said, ‘No, he’s putting so much pressure on him that he’ll cave in.’ I can’t understand the way the two of you think.”
“What I’d have you understand is that what individuals want from people they love is acknowledgment for who they are, good or bad, right or wrong. They don’t want you to take credit for their achievements, or blame for their failures. What you, as a parent, have to learn is to do things that are good for you, because your job, whether you recognize it or not, is not to make your children feel good, it’s to provide the example that life can be good and that they can find happiness and fulfilment in the world you brought them into. Your son, just wants you to be happy. Your feeling good on your own takes the responsibility off him to try to make you feel good. Conversely, you trying, albeit it with good intentions, to mold your son’s life is only seen as control. You attempting to live your life through him is viewed as a burden. You doing for him at the expense of you isn’t viewed as a loving sacrifice, it’s viewed as martyrdom and an attempt to control through guilt that you created. In the end, the greatest gift you give you child is your achievements and your feeling good in your own right.”
It’s a lesson every parent needs to learn. The axiom is: Live life to its fullest, find joy and happiness for yourself and then share your love, contentment and positive emotions with your children. Your example will motivate them to be similar to the adult you are.