We all have regrets about the things we wanted to do but never did or never could, or about the chances that we somehow let slip away. But one of the greatest mistakes that any parent can make is to try to live out their dreams vicariously through their children. When we bring new young ones into the world, they are completely innocent and impressionable, and it is up to us as parents to give them guidance and to be their role models. This is a tremendous responsibility, but it also gives us great power over their lives, and for many moms and dads the temptation to begin projecting their own past hopes and aspirations onto their children proves to be irresistible. We can tell ourselves that we are only doing it for their own good and that we want to give them the opportunities we were denied, but this is often just a convenient rationalization that helps us avoid having to face the unpleasant truth about what is really going on.
When our children are very young, they will do just about anything to get our approval. They are also very smart and intuitive, and even if we tell ourselves that we are not passing our own dreams on to them they are perfectly able to read our intentions and preferences and adjust their behavior and choices accordingly. Even though they will insist-to anyone who asks-that they love practicing gymnastics, or skating several hours a day, or competing in child beauty pageants, or getting up on the stage to sing in front of strangers, in reality our children are so anxious to please us that they will do whatever it is they know we want them to do. If it makes us happy they will convince themselves that it is making them happy, too.
But when children are subtly pressured into following the paths that their parents choose for them, it will most likely play havoc on their natural process of maturation. It becomes impossible for them to develop their own distinct and unique identities, and instead of becoming self-sufficient they become dependent and unable to decide for themselves what is best and what they would really like to do. When they get older things tend to become even more confusing for them, and they may begin to rebel and act out based on their subconscious feelings of resentment, and their former desire to please us at all costs will suddenly be replaced by an irrepressible need to frustrate and disappoint us. Even then, they are continuing to live based on how it affects us, and as long as they are motivated by their feelings for Mom and Dad instead of by their own inner vision, they are essentially left in a state of suspended adolescence.
Living vicariously through our children could potentially damage their self-esteem while doing very little in the end to help ours. But no parent should be beating themselves up just because they are having fantasies about all of the great and amazing things their kids will do when they grow up. It is human nature to have ideas like this, and all moms and dads have such dreams every now and again. When we are at fault is when we obsess over these fantasies and actually involve our children in them directly, to the point where our kids are left with no room to grow on their own to develop into fully functioning, healthy, and independent human beings. But even beyond not indulging these natural tendencies to project our own desires onto our kids, there is something else we can do that will make an indelibly positive impact on the lives of our sons and daughters.
The Virtues of “Selfishness”
Beneath the concept of living vicariously through our children lies a hidden assumption that is not generally acknowledged or challenged. If we have decided to live out our highest hopes and aspirations through our kids, it means that, for all intents and purposes, we have accepted the idea that our lives are basically over, and we truly believe that the only way for our dreams to ever be realized is for our children make them come true for us.
But who says it has to be this way? While it is true that we should not try to live vicariously through anyone else, especially our children, we also don’t want to go to the other extreme, where we are living as if our sons and daughters are the only ones who matter. The dreams you have at age 35, 45, or 55 might not be the same as the ones you had when you were an adolescent, but you can still achieve noteworthy and even remarkable things if you just set your mind to it. What you would like to do, of course, depends on your own inclinations-maybe you would like to write a novel, or take up golf or tennis, or learn karate, or maybe run for city council. But whatever it is that interests you, why rule it out just because you are older and have now added the label ‘parent’ to your personal resume?
Maybe you think that because you have children, it would be selfish of you to invest your time and energy in something that is mainly about you and not about them. But this perception is based on a mistaken idea about what our children actually expect from us. In truth, our kids want to see us do interesting, exciting, and unique things; it inspires them and gives them something to brag about to their friends. Remember, we are our kids’ most important role models, and when they see us achieving our goals and doing things that interest us, it makes them want to do the same.
Granted, the decisions they make about what they want to do with their lives might be different from the ones we made, or would have liked to have made, when we were young. But if we can just resist the temptation to try to mold them into the image of what we would like them to be, we might be surprised to discover that what they choose to be all on their own is something just as remarkable.
When Dreaming Turns into Living
Your life as an independent human being does not, and should not, stop when you become a parent. All human beings deserve the right to keep growing, learning, and achieving, and teaching your children this very important lesson through actions rather than words will do wonders for their development.
No one should feel ashamed simply because they are tempted to push their children in certain directions, this is an almost universal desire that moms and dads experience at one time or another. Rather than feeling guilty, you should take these feelings as a sign that you still have things you need to accomplish, and that you should not abandon your deepest ambitions or dreams just because our youth-worshipping society says it is too late for you. This idea is just so much fashionable nonsense-it is never too late for anyone to live his or her dreams. This is a little piece of wisdom that we should be doing everything we can to pass on to our children, as it will benefit them tremendously in the long run, just as it will benefit us in the here and now.