Every parent wants their kid to be successful. We want them to feel joy and fulfillment, and often, we have ideas about how our children’s futures need to look in order to achieve the kind of happiness we want for them. If only they go to this school, follow this career path, join this club, read these books…then they will be set for life. We will have succeeded, we tell ourselves, because they have succeeded (even if it’s only or mostly by our standards).
In reality, our kids will likely find fulfillment in unexpected places—unexpected to us, anyway. Their view of success may differ drastically from ours. Alternatively, if our kids follow the exact path we carved for them in our own minds, even if they appear successful in the way we’ve defined it for them, they may not feel any sense of fulfillment. In fact, they could be downright miserable.
When we begin walking down the complex path to success with our kids, we must as parents keep in mind that we’re walking down their path—not ours. We’re there to support and to encourage them, not to live our dreams through them. Our job as parents is to help our kids become the best versions of themselves, whoever that person ends up becoming, by doing the things that only we can do.
Help them find their lane.
If given the choice, John Adams would’ve left school and never returned. His teachers were boring and unhelpful, the subject matter felt useless at every turn. Much to his father’s consternation, the unwilling student often skipped school to spend time in nature. John Adams Sr. dreamt of his son one day attending college. You could learn many things from nature, as the elder Adams was about to illustrate, but very little of what he hoped his son would absorb at a great university.
When John Adams informed his dad he planned to become a farmer, Adams Sr. took the boy’s education into his own hands. He took his son on a field trip of sorts, wading through muck in the salt marshes south of Boston, to demonstrate firsthand what the life of a farmer actually looks like. The harsh, unforgiving reality of working the land drove the younger Adams back to school, though he remained unhappy. “I don’t like my schoolmaster,” he told his father. “He is so negligent and cross that I can never learn anything under him.”
History is flooded with stories of fathers and sons where moments like this one represent the beginning of an irreparable fracturing. The father tells the son to be a man, to stop being a baby, to get over it, to be grateful they even have this opportunity. In a moment of vulnerable honesty, the father slaps away the hand reaching for help.
The Adamses would be the exception to the rule. Rather than force his son to remain in an environment that simply wasn’t a good fit, Adams Sr. enrolled him in a private school. Under his new schoolmaster, Joseph Marsh, Adams began to thrive. He no longer fought his education. He sought out books, hungry for the knowledge he used to resist. In under a year, at just fifteen years old, Adams was declared “fitted for college.” He was enrolled at Harvard the following fall.
Rather than seeing his son’s educational struggles as a personal failure, John Adams Sr. recognized that John simply wasn’t in the right place for him. Though John ultimately achieved the dream his father had for him, he did so of his own volition. As parents, it’s our job to either find or create a space that allows our kids to thrive. When they feel safe and supported in their environment, they feel safe to explore and grow into who they are as individuals. They are free to find their lane. This isn’t an easy task, nor will the outcome look the same for every child. It requires trial and error, patience, and perhaps some creativity.
Every single person has an infinite number of lanes, but as parents, we have to help our kids find theirs. And when they do, we’ll be in the passenger’s seat—supporting them if they fall slightly off-course, or helping them navigate the route if they one day choose a different lane. It doesn’t matter if the lane they choose looks drastically different than the life you imagined for them. What matters is that it’s theirs.
Be their biggest fan, not their harshest critic.
Seeing your child choose a different path than you anticipated is sometimes difficult. Watching them fail is heartbreaking. Watching them dream too big for the amount of work they’re willing to put in is disconcerting. It triggers that natural protective instinct in all parents to be more vigilant, to remove obstacles in their way, to smooth the runway as they take off into adulthood. After all, isn’t it our job as parents to know what’s best for them? To shield them from disappointment and direct them to a stable and realistic adulthood?
The short answer is no.
Your job as a parent is to love and support your kids, to help them become the best version of the person they are meant to become…by simply cheering them on. By being their biggest fan. Because that’s all we can really control—how we show up.
The reality is, even as adults, there’s a lot we don’t know. Our kids’ dreams may seem unrealistic, but that might just be because they sound unfamiliar, not because they’re unattainable. The only way to guarantee that those dreams will never come to fruition, that your kids will never attain them, is by preventing them from fully trying to achieve those dreams in the first place. Whether that’s through criticism, or intimidation, or wielding emotional or financial power over them.
Ultimately, you have to find that balance between support and guidance. You can’t coddle them on the one hand, nor can you dictate their future on the other. They don’t need someone watching their every move, knocking down obstacles to clear the way, giving them the answers to the proverbial test. They need someone who will be there for them when they ask, and even when they don’t. Someone to share the excitement of success, and dampen the blows of failure.
To push themselves hard enough to reach their full potential, our kids need support. They need a father. They need a fan—cheering in the stands rain or shine, win or lose.
Show, don’t tell
The urge to push your children to follow a path similar to yours is almost inevitable insomuch as it is a path you know. Your experience on it has removed much of its unpredictability and uncertainty. And what of that remains, you can provide guidance and forewarning about, so that when they finally stumble you can be confident in the knowledge that they will be able to get up and soldier on.
Any parent knows, though, that pushing children toward things because they are familiar or comfortable for you, or because they are things you once aspired to, often leads to strong resistance. Like Johnny Moxon famously said to his father in Varsity Blues, “I don’t want your life!” Mox didn’t want what his father always wanted but could never achieve. He wanted those things that nobody in his small town wanted because none of them even thought it was an option.
The path you pave for your children directly opposes their path to independence, which thwarts their natural inclination toward exploration and self-reflection. It robs them of the joys of discovery and the triumph over obstacles. Rather than telling your kids the road they must follow to achieve success as you define it, show them your road and let them see if there is anything they can learn from your success (or failure) as they attempt to create their own.
Though teens especially are known for their fierce sense of defiance and rejection of parental intervention, deep within them is a sense of longing. They want to learn, they want to see everything life has to offer, but they want to do it at their own pace, in their own time, on their own terms.
There’s a reason Steph Curry was drawn to basketball, a reason sons of blacksmiths often became blacksmiths themselves. Just as there is a reason that kids choose not to follow in their parents’ footsteps into the family business, or the military, or the law or medicine. Showing your kids the way you work and navigate life, the good and the bad, allows them to evaluate it on their own terms. They may find your job boring, deciding that your path is simply not for them. But watching you in your element may awaken something deep within them, a sense of purpose and excitement that changes their life forever.
It may guide them down a new avenue, or down a different route on a similar journey—and though you inspired them in either circumstance, the path they choose is entirely their own.
Show them age is no barrier
There is undeniably a time in kids’ lives when growth is exponential. They’re learning about the world at such an astounding rate that their worldview is constantly shifting. They’re driven to explore, soaking up knowledge like tiny overeager sponges. But what happens when their sense of identity is strong? How do we navigate our days, too overwhelmed by the demands of life to put much effort into adjusting our fairly-established worldviews?
When the writer Susan Straight was helping her mother move, she found a painting in a garbage can. The painting didn’t look store-bought, and the haphazard way in which it was discarded led Susan to sense that there was more to the story. Upon approaching her mom with it, Susan received an unexpected response, unveiling a part of her family history that she never knew.
“I took a painting class at the YMCA,” her mother explained. “‘Then I found a book—teach yourself to paint.’ My mother was an artist. She made beautiful sketches of our garden and our house in Switzerland.” She went on to explain that after painting the piece in question, Susan was born and she never picked up a paintbrush again. In a jarringly matter-of-fact way, Susan’s mom stated, “My life was over.”
To a degree, this story makes sense. When our days are filled both with the demands of adulthood and the demands of parenting, there isn’t room for much else. It feels as if our lives now consist of diapers and dishes, homework help and extracurriculars. We make excuses, we forego self-actualization because we simply don’t feel like we have the mental energy.
But is that fair? Honestly, no. It’s not fair to us, and it’s not fair to our kids. How do we expect them to become the best versions of themselves when we’ve effectively given up on the best versions ourselves?
We can’t lean on the demands of parenting as an excuse for abandoning our potential, and we can’t push our children to grow when we claim we don’t have the time to do even the bare minimum for ourselves. Our kids are watching, learning, and internalizing. In order to encourage our kids to reach their full potential, we have to accept that we probably haven’t reached ours—likely that we’re not even close—and then we have to lead by example.
Bonus: How kids can help you become the best version of yourself
We’re often so wrapped up in what we need from our kids—their undivided attention, their full effort, their ability to go out there and “make us proud”—that we sometimes forget about what they need from us. Sure, we provide things like food and shelter, we give them attention and care. But how often do we consider whether or not we’re making our kids proud?
We’re not entitled to our kids’ respect, and they won’t magically admire us if we don’t act admirably. We think about ways in which our kids have disappointed us—with their choices, their words, their actions. But do we really consider whether or not we’re disappointing them? Feeling as if your parents are disappointed in you is devastating, but it’s equally motivating. The reverse should also hold true.
We’re far from perfect. We don’t always make the best choices, we don’t always show up for our kids in the way they need us to. That hard truth should be painful, but it should also serve as a reminder that we can and should do better. Feeling our kids’ disappointment doesn’t mean it’s over for us, it means we still have a lot to learn, as we always will.
We should live each day as if we’re working to make our kids proud, and our efforts will motivate them to do the same.
Motivation is a muscle, one that needs to be exercised regularly so it doesn’t atrophy. Motivation can also fatigue, and on days when life’s demands feel overwhelming, the bare minimum feels like it requires everything you have. Our motivation doesn’t have to come from us though, especially on days when we feel as if we’ve reached our limit. Motivation can be external, rooted in our desire to set an example for our kids, to make them proud of us. We owe them that much.
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