Signing my 7 year-old son up for soccer this season was a decision my wife and I made without hesitation. He loved hockey after all, and soccer involved far less equipment while offering a unique chance to watch games in practices in a warm Okanagan spring, rather than freezing in a town rink. My wife was especially enthusiastic about his playing soccer, as she played at a high level for many years, and still enjoys playing for her indoor team.
Imagine our reaction when, as it turns out, our son has not picked up skills like dribbling and shooting as quickly as we had envisioned, and in fact appears far more interested in goofing around with his teammates between (and during!) drills. While he may be exceptionally talented with Lego and can list 5 unique traits of every Pokemon character ever created since the dawn of time, he has yet to show he can shoot a ball in the net from three yards away. My wife can hardly contain herself, and numerous times has found it very difficult to watch as he bumbles, stumbles, and laughs his way through almost every practice and game, and has a fabulous time doing it.
All of us want our children to grow and learn at a rate at least on par with their peers, and it is hard to disagree with this. I wish for the same thing! However, potential problems can emerge when parents begin to conclude that the path to success for their child is through them mirroring the parent’s success, and following a very similar route. This can often occur with highly successful parents, wishing for nothing less for their son or daughter, and naturally wanting similar success to occur for them as well. To bring this about, a very strict regimen of specific homework times, team sports, and very structured, intense parenting is not unusual. The phrase “I don’t want her to make the same mistakes I made”, while perhaps coming from a healthy place and with the best intentions, can actually really hinder positive growth for a young person.
I call this the Mini-Me Syndrome; a desire (and sometimes a demand) for our child to enjoy success that actually looks very similar to what we currently enjoy, but without having to endure nearly as many pitfalls along the way. In effect, we want our children to enjoy our success, and do it our way, because we know it works, and they might run into far too many problems if they try and plot their own route to success. In some of the more serious cases, there can also be a great deal of ego involved: if our child follows our path to glory, it is a confirmation of our own greatness, and provides a deep personal satisfaction through passing on a legacy that shouts out the victory we have made happen.
The Achilles Heel of such a parenting approach comes through taking away the single largest opportunity a young person can have in developing a healthy sense of independence – that of taking ownership of creating his or her own path, being allowed to deal with obstacles and natural consequences that are not always easy, and even being permitted to fail as required in learning valuable lessons in life. When we choose to invite our children to find and embrace their own interests, and plot (with support from us, of course) their own route into a purpose-filled future, there is an inherent risk that they will choose something other than what we had in mind. Their interests may be completely different, their beliefs about the world and how it works may not match up very well with our own, and they will almost certainly make mistakes that we as parents knew were coming, and that we could have helped them avoid!
Nonetheless, the gift of allowing our children to choose much about their own path helps them to grow resilience and a sense of purpose that is all but unachievable through any other means. Though it is very difficult for many of us, it usually is a very healthy exercise to encourage our children to develop their own paths forward in ways that resonate with them. They much more quickly take ownership, responsibility, and grow immeasurably from the experience – tears and all. Mini-Me is almost always an illusion, and might prevent us from experiencing the deep satisfaction of raising our children toward growing into adults who love us, are fulfilled, and who we couldn’t be more proud of.