One of the great debates about parenting, or in my case what I call “proxy parenting”, is how much control you should exert over a child’s choices. A child, being defined as a person who is under the “legal age of maturity.” Choices being defined as the set of options and the process of sacrificing a set of them for one or a few.
As adults, even those only slightly older than our “proxy children”, we know that procrastination and avoidance is a choice in itself. Not making a choice is still making a choice. We have a heightened sense of urgency that middle schoolers and high schoolers don’t have.
We reflect our experiences onto our children like mirrors — our triumphs, mistakes, heartbreaks, and comebacks. We think, at some level, that they may repeat our shameful family history. Or worse, that they are the key for us to redeem our own.
Our entire lives up to this point dictate how we parent. Specifically, how we guide our children to make decisions or refute making them at all.
There are two extremes of how parents approach this part of parenting. I’ll illustrate in this wonderful, timely example:
If you want to go to college, you have to apply. If you want to go to a good college, you need to work hard in school, study for the SATs, make friends with your teachers, and invest energy in an array of interesting projects and activities.
By not applying yourself in school, nor joining a bunch of clubs, cozying up to your teachers during “office hours”, or attending test prep — you are in effect limiting your future choices for college.
By not applying to college at all, you can’t get in.
We, as adults, get this. It’s fairly obvious what the “system” is once you’ve gone through it.
But let’s backtrack off the mechanics of getting into college for a second.
Who says your (hypothetical or real) child needs to go to college? Society? Grandparents? The ol’ guidance counselor? A soccer coach? You?
How was that decision made? Or how might it be made? Was the “child” involved in making that decision or do you believe that he/she is far too young to make the right choice in this instance?
#1 Choice: On the one hand, she doesn’t understand the ROI of a Bachelor’s Degree.
You do. And by the reverse transitive property that makes you the better “decider” in this case.
Is that what you think?
If this is the fundamental assumption you make, no judgment whatsoever. The path forward is simple for you and your daughter.
To funnel your child towards X decision (an ivy league education), you must also make sure she does Y (study, be active, etc.). That requires effort and work on your part and hers.
And for everything you are doing, you may get to be the hero in the end.
#2 Choice: On the other hand, you can decide to swing the pendulum in the complete opposite direction.
Instead of attempting to force your child down one particular path, you create an open door policy. If your kid wants something, you know he’ll go get it. This goes for things as small as feeding himself dinner to as large as choosing whether to go to college.
With this ideological position, you don’t need to lay out the path or enforce any rules. You make the choice to see your child as a completely functional and independent human being who is capable of rational decision making. And you lay a lot of faith in the future — that the passage of time will iron out the kinks itself. You don’t need to do anything. The Universe will teach him the lessons he must learn.
You set up what was essentially a giant game of Minecraft where your kid can “choose his own adventure.”
And for everything that you are not doing, you may get to be the hero in the end.
Of course, these are two opposite ends of a linear spectrum that, in sum, explains the spectrum of ideological choices in parenting.
Like the range from libertarian to communist, there is a lot of space between for more balanced ideologies and outcomes to be expressed.
I pose the two extremes, however, because I think they highlight the core of what we should be talking about when it comes to raising well-adjusted, kind, hard-working, and intelligent citizens of the world.
And it’s not college.
Nor is it the method you choose.
Nor even your ideological predisposition.
What you need to focus on has little if anything to do with the right method or ideology of parenting and everything to do with the intent behind it.
The killer of great parenting is having a selfish intent behind action or inaction.
Most parents want what’s best for their kids. Most parents aren’t anywhere near as extreme in their approach as these two examples. Especially because parenting, in itself, is a uniquely selfless endeavor.
But let’s take those college examples again and craft stories behind them that help me (again) illustrate my point.
The first parenting extreme — the discretely over-protective path — could be classified as selfish in nature. The parents want to have their child succeed (in the college admission process) because it will reflect well on them. When the other parents on the sideline ask, “where is Suzie going next fall?” they want to be able to respond with a humble:
“Oh, she’ll be in Cambridge.”
They pushed their daughter all the way to Harvard — in part for her, but mostly for them. Her parents reflect in unison, “It was all worth it!”
Not so fast. Time has yet to run its course. While their selfish desire may align with greatness in the long-run, it also may align with her disdain, anger, regret, and frustration. They made the decisions for her; her agency was stolen. Her future was never up to her. And if she realizes that, there may be hell to pay.
The second extreme is a bit harder to peel apart in a search for selfishness. It seems, at the outset, that the parents have relinquished their control and given up their egos. Unlike Suzie’s parents, they don’t have their identity or self-worth tied up in the success of their child.
However, the desire to create an exploratory world for their child may not have been out of selflessness. In fact, it may have been that they actually didn’t “feel like” parenting.
To have their child accomplish X, they’d have to do Y. And they simply were not willing to do Y. Because Y required attention, focus, and effort — not just from their child, but from them, too.
It was much easier to let him eat pasta, smoke pot, and be pacifists.
Maybe they couldn’t give up their free time, their dating lives, or their drugs.
So they went on evangelizing: “The New School of Parenting” where parents become their children’s friends and let them run the show.
The great news is, unlike in the other scenario, your child can’t look back at you and say “you forced me into a career path that I hated” or “you made me marry a woman that I didn’t love.”
The method by which you choose to push or not push your kids matters very little. What matters is if they understand why you are doing what you are doing.
In other words: Are you doing it for you? Or are you doing it for them?
To be a good parent is to love someone more than you love yourself and to show them that.
To not be so tied to the end result that you push a child on the wrong path.
To not be so afraid of the process that you relinquish all involvement.
Parents fail all the time. They also succeed all the time. The best you can do is the best you can do. And that’s just it.
As a parent, you must do the best you can do.
And that starts with analyzing your own intent.