I grew up with a lot of parental cheerleading.
I was frequently told how clever I was, how talented I was, how amazing I was.
In a world littered with stories of critical, unsupportive, or disinterested parents, I was lucky. So how can I possibly have wished for anything different?
Surprisingly, ongoing affirmation and praise had a downside. I learned to place importance on my achievements as central to being loved. I believed that my status as a worthy person rested on my ability to earn good grades and excel at whatever I turned my hand to.
This wasn’t a case of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” My mother didn’t push me hard, drive me to do things I didn’t want to, or criticize me into achieving. No. It was quite the opposite. She praised me. She praised me all the time. She praised me to the extent that I believed that excellence was the norm and anything less than was just that: less than.
I became fearful of anything challenging…in case I wasn’t perfect. I scored 99 percent for a spelling test in Grade Two and can still remember the word I got wrong. I remember not entering the contest for a high school scholarship because I was afraid I wouldn’t win. I remember not trying out for the first team because I was worried I wouldn’t crack it.
The result of over-praise was many years of playing it safe. I didn’t try anything new, anything tough or anything brave for fear of not being the best. I under-achieved in many ways, believing that if I didn’t put in too much effort upfront, I couldn’t be ashamed if I failed.
When I look back to the person I was then, I am saddened by how I must have felt at that time. I wonder what kind of life I was living, wrapped up in safety and an ongoing state of performance anxiety. Seemingly a contained child, I was bound up in my own desire for perfection, never extending beyond what felt comfortable—never dreaming, never trying, and never rising.
I completely understand my mother’s intentions in parenting this way. She was doing her best to make me feel confident and loved at all times. She wanted to encourage me and to give me the sense of self-worth she felt was lacking in her own upbringing. After all, we all do that, don’t we? We seek to fill our own childhood holes through our “do over” roles as parents.
I see this kind of parenting amongst many of my clients today: women who protect their children from pain by removing them from a class of troublesome peers; women who allow their child to stop swimming lessons because they don’t want to put them under too much pressure; women whose children don’t win the prize and are reassured of its unfairness anyway.
The outcome is this: in an attempt to raise a child who is confident and filled with self-worth, we are raising children who lack resilience and who rely on affirmation to succeed.
Children who are over-praised and over-protected don’t grow up to be confident and courageous and brave. They turn out to be fearful of failure and tentative about life. They don’t take risks and they feel shame at imperfection. They spend their lives believing that nothing will go wrong, because nothing ever has. And certainly, no one ever talked about it when it did.
Every time their mother bails them out of a tough situation, they miss the opportunity to learn what is required to mess up…and still be okay. Every time they receive an award for being average, they learn that hard work isn’t really necessary to achieve. Every time they’re saved from pushing through a difficult task, their failure-resilience is minimized.
But life isn’t like that, is it? Life is tough. Life is filled with disappointments and failures and screw-ups. It’s filled with challenges and obstacles and start-agains. I only really learned this later in life. I only learned what it means to be deficient in resilience when I hit failure for the first time, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with it.
Whether we are trying to start our own business, change career, study, or parent a difficult teen, life is going to throw its muck at us at some point. And then it’s going to do so again, and again, and again.
If we are raised to believe in perfection, we don’t understand why this is happening. We feel like we’re falling apart because we’ve never had to deal with it before. We believe that we’ve done something terribly wrong because no one has ever explained that this is what life’s about: It’s about trying and failing and getting up and trying again. And that it’s all completely normal. Everyone is doing it and everyone feels the same way. But we have to keep going. We have to tough it out.
If there is a single thing I could change about the way I was parented, it is this. I would like to have learned greater resilience:
You messed up? Great. We get to talk about how I messed up too, and neither of us is less loved as a result.
You’re pretty sucky at athletics? Fantastic. If you love running anyway, do it for the rest of your life and stop caring if you will ever reach the podium.
Your classmate has been giving you a hard time? Congratulations. You’re getting well-prepped for your future colleagues.
You didn’t get called up on stage at the awards evening? Okay. So, what do you think it’s going to take to get you there next time?
You’re still failing on the fifth attempt? Excellent. You’re still at it and are going to make one helluva entrepreneur.
Life is tough darling, but so are you.
Is this really true? Can we say that about ourselves? Can we honestly say this to our kids and mean it?
Or could we be doing things a little differently?
What will it take to raise strong, courageous adults who have the grit to push through regardless?
Author: Jessica Uys
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren