Did you see the headlines this week? I’m sure you did but for purposes of this discussion I’ll summarize - a handful of rich and famous people were caught paying boatloads of money to falsify their kid’s records in order to be admitted into prestigious schools. There are many layers to this discussion that will be challenged and hopefully improved in years to come. And while it seems this controversy is all about college admissions, the root of the problem starts long before. In fact, in most cases, I don’t think parents even realize what they are doing.
Babies are cute and cuddly, but they really don’t DO anything. We patiently wait for the days when they can build with blocks, or throw a ball, or color on a page. In those proud moments we see a glimmer of talent and imagine they must be doing it better than the other kids their age.
Side bar - You know now that I think about it, I wonder if this really starts in the doctor’s office? From the first appointments we are told what percentile our babies are in height and weight – parents are proud to have babies that are gaining as expected, but could that be setting us up for “performance metrics” in the earliest of days?
But back to our kids, who by now are toddlers and are starting to show preferences in the things they like to do. We encourage them and play along because it’s fun to see their excitement as they grasp these new skills. It’s impossible not to let your mind imagine the possibilities for your child…….. Inevitably the day comes where their effort falls a little short and with the intention of being encouraging and supportive you utter these words:
“I know you can do better, you have so much potential.”
We have seen them at the peak of their performance, we know they can do it and by encouraging them in this way, we think we are giving them the confidence they need to believe in themselves.
But this word, “potential”, is dangerous, hidden trap for parents. Webster’s defines potential as “possible,”. This is the part of the definition parents think of - reach for the stars, the skies the limit. The second half of the definition of potential is “as opposed to actual”, so together “possible, as opposed to actual”. So, while we are trying to be encouraging, we are at the same time implying that what you are doing right now is not enough. Now you may be screaming, “That’s not what I meant! I’ve seen my son/daughter achieve at a higher level and so I know they can do it. I’m not asking them to do anything they haven’t already done. I’m not setting them up for failure because I know it’s possible. I just want to give them that extra push to stretch and achieve all they can.” These are all very valid statements. I get it, I too was one of those parents who thought I was encouraging my kids when I talked to them about their potential.
A few months ago, I was at Dr. Shefali’s Evolve conference and she brought up this topic. She explained when we are talking about potential, what we are really saying is the “as is”, or the way things are right now, is not enough. I had never heard an explanation like that before and it stopped me in my tracks. The great play during a game or an A on a test becomes a benchmark of their potential, and as parents we may not appreciate how much importance we place on those moments. I thought back to all the times I talked to my kids about their potential, where I believed, innocently, I was encouraging them. With this new perspective, I can see how I was also sending a message they were falling short and could/should be doing better.
Thankfully, most of us will never get to the point where we are lying and cheating the system to benefit our kids, but that doesn’t mean we are completely innocent. We these extreme cases to examine our own expectations, to look deeper at what we are saying and not saying to our kids. Are we supporting them in their daily efforts, no matter if it’s to “their potential” or not? Are we listening to what they have to say about their own effort and performance?
You may read this and think this is a passive parenting. You may believe kids need the extra push and the structure only a parent can impart. I would encourage you to challenge your beliefs and the next time you feel you must “be the parent”, ask your son/daughter what they think. Listen carefully, what is driving them? How do they really feel? Resist the urge to offer your perspective and affirm to them that how things are right now are just fine. This type of parenting can actually empower your kids to trust in themselves and their intrinsic abilities more than any outside person or organization can ever do.
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Photo by Taha Mazandarani on Unsplash
I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.