What if it’s wrong to tell our kids they can do anything?

Cheering parentsDoes enthusiastic encouragement, positive parenting and rah-rah, awesome, awesomeness necessarily lead to outstanding achievement and ‘success’  for our children?

What if it could actually have the opposite effect? What if it could end up demotivating them?

It sounds counter intuitive. Every bit of parenting wisdom we’ve been taught over the past couple of decades has stated unequivocally that if you support and encourage your child in their endeavours, they’ll fulfil your prophecy. Spurred on by your enthusiastic side-line cheering, your very breath will become the wind beneath their little tiny wings and they will positively fly to the goal line.

My experience is that sometimes this is not the case.

I grew up with unconditional  love and support from both parents. Shocking, I know. And how could that possibly be a bad thing? Of course it can’t. It’s wonderful to experience complete approval and acceptance and it stands you in extremely good stead to leave the nest and head out into the big wide world as a young adult. But different personalities respond to different motivators in different ways.

When I asked my parents what I should be when I grew up, they told me that I could do and be anything I wanted. I was a pretty good student so technically, they were sort of right. I would probably have gotten into most university courses that I applied for and I would probably do quite well in any task I set my mind to. But there’s the sticking point. I could achieve highly if I ‘set my mind to it’. But why would I set my mind to it? What would motivate me to actually fulfil my theoretical potential?

In my case, it turns out nothing much. Sure, I could study law, work my way up the corporate ladder and one day become CEO or CMO or CFFingO. But why would I do that? I had nothing to prove to anyone, not even myself. The people I cared about most at that time in my life knew I was capable of it, I knew I was capable of it. Surely I didn’t need to actually do it, did I?

I have been spectacularly unambitious for most of my adult life (although I’ve had a truck load of fun in so being). And while that may just be my particular personality, I wonder if the lack of challenge may have enhanced this arguable deficit? What would have happened if somebody had dared me to do something extraordinary? ‘I bet you can’t ….’ I wonder if I might have responded with  ‘I’ll show you’.

I know I’m now bordering scarily on sounding completely old school, where parents consistently told their kids they were useless good-for-nothings who wouldn’t amount to anything, in the guise of not letting them get a big head so they wouldn’t think they were better than anyone else (particularly the parent). But of course that is not what I mean. I just worry that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, such that we’re giving our children messages which are at worst completely unrealistic or at the very least just not helpful.

The daughter of a friend of mine is a case in point. She finished high school a couple of years ago and is now suffering from depression. She was a high achieving student who was accelerated academically through high school and believed that she could do anything she wanted. But the reality was that the course she wanted to do that would take her on the path she had chosen for herself was the same course that lots of other gifted students wanted to do. The competition for places was fierce and she didn’t get in. This was not something she had ever considered possibly happening. She thought it was simple – she knew what she wanted to do, she was clever enough, she studied hard, viola! But when it didn’t happen that way, she was lost.

Perhaps she could have been spared her current suffering if she’d factored in the very real possibility that there may be circumstances beyond her control that could stuff up her dreams; developed a plan B, just in case plan A (gasp)failed.

I hope that there’s a happy medium. Maybe we, as parents, while still offering our inevitable unconditional support, could also throw in a bit of the conditional kind as well. We could blend just a smattering of harsh reality into the happily ever after mix.




My youngest had just started school and I knew I wanted to work again, but I felt lost and didn’t know what I wanted to do after all those years as a stay at home mum.
Gabrielle helped me understand what I thrive at, and it became clear to me what I did and didn’t want to do, going forward.
I felt understood and seen as a whole person. Thank you.

Elise, 42

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