Families are getting smaller, and have been since the early 1960s, giving parents more time to devote to each child. As a result, parents today all seem to be pushing for “star” progeny. Children would benefit if parents could temper their dreams. With parents of only children, the tendency to want their kids to excel can be so focused that it becomes counter-productive. Here are suggestions to benefit both parent and child alike.
Recognize Your Fantasies
Parents have fantasies about babies before they are born. While the fetus moves about in the womb, moms and dads make predictions: “This will be a very active baby; this one’s going to be an athlete.” As years pass, the fantasies change form. With an only child there is almost always a level of expectation that is too high. No matter how much you restrain it, it’s there. If you’re honest with yourself you’ll recognize it, as will your child at a very young age.
Chances are your Only will do well in one or more areas because of the special opportunities and attention singleness affords. Singletons show up more frequently among leaders; they are intellectually advantaged and socially well adjusted. There’s no need to turn child-rearing into a competition in which your child must be the best–best academically, best athletically, best dressed, best all-’round camper. You will gain endless rewards from your child in respect, love and consideration if you delight in her accomplishments and minimize her shortcomings as they surface.
Perfectionism Can Backfire
Everyone, including children, needs something to strive for. When goals are attained, self-esteem is enhanced. But, if expectations are too high, a child’s self-confidence may be undermined when she cannot reach parental goals, and her desire to succeed may vanish. As I point out in Parenting An Only Child, only children expend great amounts of effort and energy to satisfy their parents. Onlies can be very hard on themselves and rarely need additional pressure from their parents. Singleton Andrea Balfour endured the pressure for years before she got out from under it. In grade school, she recalls, “Once I asked my father to listen to a poem that I had to memorize for a class. The first time I went to him, I really didn’t know it and he told me not to come back until I had it perfect. Nothing except perfection was allowed. I performed perfectly until I left Tennessee to go to college. I almost flunked out after my first semester. Away from the constant observation of my parents, I felt free. I wanted to have fun and I did.”
Doing one’s best does not seem to be good enough for many parents of onlies. One Only recalls never living up to his parents’ ideal. “If I got a 98, he said, ‘Why didn’t you get a 100?’ When the basketball team didn’t win, my father said, ‘Why didn’t you get the extra point?’ My parents demanded an improved performance for everything. I was not permitted any mistakes in any area.”
Warnings Signs: Pressure Too Much
Over-emphasis on excellence is relatively easy to spot in the school-age child. You can tell you are being too demanding when your child begins to turn to your spouse on a regular basis for entertainment, consolation or affection. A young child will walk away from the parent who insists that a dive be executed precisely or book read without errors. She will march to the parent who accepts her skills at her level.
A drop in the quality of schoolwork, extreme sensitivity to mild or constructive criticism and a lowering of his own standards are also indicative of an over-stressed child. If he feels–or says–he’s lazy or dumb, if he appears to have stopped trying, you may be driving him too hard, expecting too much.
If this happens, pull back. Join forces with your spouse or significant other to start fresh and ease up. Block time so that the three of you can be together doing something enjoyable or sharing a task (work in the garden, clean a closet, paint a room or piece of furniture) to remove the focus from whether or not your child is doing well.
Look at Your Child Realistically
Make an honest evaluation of your child’s talents and abilities. Then, offer opportunities to expand those strengths. If she’s only a mediocre gymnast and she says she doesn’t like it, let her stop training. Take your child’s age and developmental level into account. Your five-year-old probably doesn’t have the muscular development and coordination to swim a perfect crawl – so wait until she’s older before you critique her strokes. When you must address failures, do so in relationship to successes, emphasizing the latter.
Look at Yourself
Parents impose unrealistic expectations on their children for various reasons. Parents face their own childhood when they watch their children grow, and in doing so they want their children to have the successes that eluded them in childhood. Only child-parent Evelyn Hanna spent long periods of time agonizing before she understood. “The first blow came when my son entered second grade,” she says. “The teacher put him in the slowest reading group. I was sure she had made a mistake and insisted that Neil be retested. In my head he was going to be the academic fireball I had dreamed of being. With the help of the school principal I learned to focus on his positive attributes–his popularity, his athletic abilities and warm personality. Those should have been enough for me from the beginning.”
There is also a pronounced tendency on the part of the parents of only children to take responsibility for how a child turns out instead of accepting that that’s how the child is. Such parents might make statements like, “She’s not reading because I didn’t spend time with her each evening teaching her the sight words” or “he’s not slamming the ball out of the park because I didn’t have batting practice in the backyard twice a week.”
Easing Up and Backing Off
Pressure intensifies when both parents excel because the parents, not siblings, are the only child’s performance models. To ease the burden of living up to your level, make it clear that he should make his own path by choosing something that particularly interests him. Tell him you understand that his choice may be quite different from yours. When you don’t explicitly give a child room to be himself, the situation can appear hopeless and impossible to him.
Whether or not your child excels academically, she probably has strengths you can encourage and in which you can take pride. Being proud is very different from living vicariously through your child. Being a role model by expressing contentment with your own pursuits is more effective than expressing your hopes for your child or being a tough taskmaster. Demanding performance from a child who may not be capable of meeting your expectation or interested in it is frustrating for everyone and could create a backlash whose effect might not be seen for years.
Parents of Onlies would be wise to keep up their own activities and interests so that they have less time to focus on every inch of their singleton’s progress. It’s a step in right direction just to be aware that putting all your energy into your child may not be the best thing for her.
For more suggestions on raising singletons, see Parenting an Only Child, The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only (Broadway Books).
Social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D. teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and is the author of 13 books, including The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It—and Mean It—and Stop People-Pleasing Forever (McGraw-Hill), Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day (RandomHouse/Crown), ), Little Things Mean A Lot: Creating Happy Memories with Your Grandchildren (Random House/Crown), and Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship With Your Mother and Father. Visit Susan’s website: www.susannewmanphd.com