Meet Jim, a 48-year-old father of two. His son and daughter, Jack and Christy, are now in high school. Jim has always had high standards for his children and pushed them to excel academically. While his expectations produced positive results in the past, he now feels extremely challenged by their lack of effort. He hates feeling disappointed and angry with them, but doesn’t know what to do.
Jack and Christy are psyched about the freedom that high school affords them. After years of their father breathing down their necks, extracurricular activities finally allow for some autonomy. But without anyone holding them accountable, Christy and Jack are now discovering that it can be difficult to stay on top of everything. School has become more challenging, and they’re finding that it’s easier to accept poor results when you don’t try in the first place.
For his part, even though Jim is successful now, he often doesn’t have as much confidence as he would like. This is why he’s gone to such lengths to push his kids; he wants them to know their own potential and be accountable to themselves and their teachers. What Jim’s kids don’t realize is that his controlling behavior with them is the result of him having felt unsupported by his own parents. Like many neglected kids, when Jim struggled in school and his grades slipped, it was because he lacked the kind of support he longed for at home. Sadly, even though Jim’s overbearing insistence that Christy and Jack succeed directly contrasts with his own parents’ lack of involvement, the outcome is shaping up to be the same.
Will Jim figure out how to give his children the kind of attention that will empower them, or will his demands and expectations ultimately belittle them? Because Jim’s high standards have been the sole motivating factor in their lives, Jack and Christy don’t know the benefit and power of trial-and-error efforts. They can’t begin to realize how these very experiences ignite curiosity, motivation, effort, and self-esteem.
We can all respect Jim’s anxiety for his children and his efforts to protect them. Yet, his error, like many others, is based on a belief in opposites. Consider how 180 degrees from dysfunction is dysfunction: Neglect is as much a problematic behavior as overprotection.
If we look more deeply at Jim’s disappointment and anger toward his teenage children, an element of profound fear and sadness seems to lurk below the surface. While no parent wants their children to shoulder the insecurities of their own past, many believe that masking emotional disappointment behind a show of power and confidence will somehow protect them. Compensating for past emotional pain is like the old shell game, the one with three cups and a pea. The secreted vulnerability (the pea) continues to exist in spite of the sleight-of-hand bravado that keeps it from being seen. When Jim’s children fail to accomplish the heroic feats he expects will benefit and protect him, his old sorrows emerge. As hard as it is for Jim to give them the space to prove their own potential, he must first own and reconcile his old sorrows if he’s to teach his children well.