I often tell people this is my parenting motto—tongue firmly planted in cheek, of course. I say this in order to make them aware of the folly of such a philosophy, so that whenever they see themselves falling prey to this line of thinking they may be able to catch themselves and desist. Because in everyday life it is startling how often both credit and blame are misplaced.
In all areas of society we struggle to take personal responsibility. When a child fails at school, the first one held accountable is the teacher. When someone wins it’s because they were deserving, whereas if they come up short it’s because they were unlucky. In every sporting loss it seems there’s always an element of the losing team having been cheated by the referees.
And just as we chronically blame others for our children’s shortcomings, we every bit as frequently attempt to steal credit for their successes. The father of the child who sank the winning basket basks in the congratulations of the fellow dads. The mother of the class valedictorian beams as others shower her with praise. Hey, it’s fine to convey to the mom or dad heart-felt well wishes, but remember, it was the child who did the work and deserves the accolades, not the parents.
This brings up a story.
I asked a good friend of mine some time back what he had planned for the upcoming weekend. He replied that he and his wife had invited a couple they scarcely knew out for dinner. Furthermore, he expressed how tremendously excited he was about having the opportunity to get to know them better.
“Oh? Why’s that?” I inquired.
“Well,” he responded, “they are apparently fantastic parents, as their children are just awesome. Super-attractive, four point students, outstanding athletes…and extremely polite to boot! Just great kids! Yes, any couple who has done such a superb job of parenting must be pretty darned remarkable in their own right, and are well worth knowing.”
He further commented that he was “absolutely stoked” to make their acquaintance.
This conversation really bothered me, for reasons I could not immediately comprehend. Something was seriously amiss here, but what was it? The more I thought about it, the more questions were raised in my mind. Actually, a whole lot of questions…
First of all, is there any truth to the theory that there is a direct link between having successful kids and parents being outstanding people in their own right? I don’t know. I’m still not so sure about that one. Maybe they are great moms and dads, and maybe they aren’t. I mean, what do we really know about their children? Well, we know they are physically attractive, excellent students, and gifted athletically, and that they have been trained to say, “Yes, sir,” and “No, ma’am,” in public (which always just impresses the heck out of us older folks, doesn’t it?), but what else? How do they treat their less fortunate peers when no adult is observing? What about all of the other traits which go into being a good person, the immeasurables which can’t be quantified by GPA or points per game? And isn’t it possible their good fortune stems primarily from the fact that they are merely the fortunate beneficiaries of an awesome gene pool? As the old saying goes, born on third base and thought they hit a triple? Could it be that these parents were just lucky to have naturally talented children who were preordained to excel, no matter what kind of upbringing they had?
The flip side to this concept of evaluating a parent on the basis of their children’s accomplishments is the tendency to grade too harshly moms and dads who have a troubled or less successful offspring. Might a child’s unwillingness to give a firm handshake or present themselves graciously have more to do with their innate shyness than the training they received at home? Is it really fair for the parent of the sports star to get more credit than the one whose son or daughter has no more innate athletic ability than a can of tuna? And what about the slow learner who works hard, is diligent, and manages to make a passing grade? Isn’t that every bit as much of an achievement as the academically gifted child who scorches standardized tests without breaking a sweat? If your child is less physically attractive than others, so what? Should that be a source of shame, or reflect negatively upon the mother or father? A parent of a child with chronic depression, who manages against all odds to keep their child afloat, isn’t that a triumph worth heralding?
What is your goal for your child, anyway? Is it for them to be an academic, athletic, and social success? If so, it goes without saying, that would be just fantastic. Seriously, who wouldn’t wish that for our offsprings? But don’t you also wish for them to be kind, decent, and honest? Shouldn’t one be equally proud of having a child who consistently gives their best effort, regardless of the final result? Isn’t that the ultimate definition of a positive outcome?
It is grievously unfair to evaluate a parent by how their kids “turned out,” and this is equally true when it comes to judging yourself in this role. After thirty-plus years in pediatrics I am convinced that the amount of influence we have on how our child develops is far more limited than we realize. Their innate temperament, genetic gifts, peer choices, and multiple other environmental factors are largely out of our control.
We are guilty of taking too much credit and, at other times, far too much blame for our children’s outcomes. A parent simply needs to support their sons and daughters in their chosen endeavors, be a good role model, and set up appropriate boundaries and expectations. Don’t compare your child’s skill set with others. Accept them for what they are. Help them develop their strengths, while at the same time accepting their limitations. And, most importantly, make sure your children are eternally aware that in your eyes they are truly special. Because they are, you know.
The Coach-of-the-Year Award doesn’t necessarily go to the one who had the best record and the superior players. Rather, the prize is awarded to the coach who did the best with the material he or she was given. I believe the same evaluation system is applicable to parenting.
Be justly proud of your children’s accomplishments, but understand that they are their successes, not yours. And don’t beat yourself up so badly when things go wrong. Give yourself a break. It’s not all your fault. All we can ever do as parents is try our best.
The rest is up to them.