When I was a teenager, my father used to tell me—“I can’t wait for you to have kids! Then you will know what I am going through!” I hated when he said that. I loved to bait my father, and he would react predictably. Now, in my adult shoes, worn for many years, I feel bad about how I treated him. But of course, at the time, I was just acting like teens do–practicing my debating and negotiating skills, and flexing my intellectual muscles that I would later use in adult life.
One of the many challenges of parental life is our inability to really remember what it is like to be a kid. We do remember experiences, but we recall them through adult eyes. We are unable to recapture the lived experience of ourselves as children. We remember just the outside shell of those moments.
Recently, I was talking to a friend who is struggling with her son, Joe. She and her husband were very competitive athletes in high school and college. Their daughter is also a top basketball player (like her mom— Dad was a top football player). Joe’s problem—he’s short and not very coordinated! Both parents enjoy watching his sister’s basketball games. Joe feels like an outsider in his own family. He desperately wants to participate in the family legacy, but ends up sitting on the bench when he plays a sport. He sometimes wonders if his parents picked up the wrong baby when they brought him home from the hospital.
While his loving parents try to reassure him that they don’t really care if he is athletic, Joe just doesn’t believe them. He feels like an outcast. At times, he feels depressed and dejected. He doesn’t feel like his parents “really understand” him.
I remember my youngest daughter telling my wife and I that she was “different” than her parents and her older sister. We were “intellectuals that liked to read”. She notified us that she hated reading and that the only thing that was important to her was to make the varsity cheerleading squad! We dutifully went to her games and watched her jump up and down with pompoms in hand. As much as we were happy that she achieved her goal, it was hard for us to really relate to her accomplishment. And she knew it.
I remember my mother telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be in life. I took this to mean that I could get a PhD in any field I wanted. My middle brother, a stellar student, suffered because he wasn’t really interested in academia—he wanted to be a small businessman.
Joe’s mom tries reassure her son that success in athletics is not really important to her. She wants Joe to find himself. But Joe isn’t reassured. He wants his Mom’s approval on the family’s playing field–sports. And, he doesn’t really know where his talents and interests lie.
Family and cultural expectations are transmitted wordlessly. Kids just know what their parent’s want and dream for. They feel bad when they don’t have the interest or the abilities required.
So what can parents do?
Your kids have to figure these things out on their own. Reconciling whom you really are with cultural and family expectations is an important part of adolescent and young adult development. No one can do it for you and reassurance doesn’t help. Better for parents to acknowledge the pain of this challenge and to express their confidence that their son or daughter will find the right answer for them.
Just listen. That is easier said than done. It is hard to listen to our child’s pain without trying to ease it or take it way. In these individual struggles, we are helpless to take away their suffering.
Ask your teen what are the different ways they might handle this problem. Joe’s mom listened to him talk about his feelings. It was hard for her to hear his suffering. Acknowledging that it is hard to be so different than his parents and sister, she asked him what might be some different ways of coping with the dilemma. This question helps Joe consider the possibilities, rather than just feel bad.
Share your own insights and experiences with this dilemma.