Are you weighing your child down with the burden of your expectations?

Are you weighing your child down with the burden of your expectations?

Do we want our children to succeed in exams, or do we want them to succeed in life? It is a decision we need to make as parents, because the paths to both may be completely different

I recently had a client who was in the process of leaving her marriage. I expected her to be distraught about the implications of that decision, and what it would mean for her, going forward. Instead what I found was someone distraught by the implications of that decision on her parents. They had had expectations of her, which she had not lived up to, in the past, as well. And now this! She was concerned about how they would face society. After all, she had let them down. Would they ever be able to recover from this? And would she ever be able to recover from having let them down? Those were her major concerns.

I have met several parents who have a clearly mapped out a future path for their children — every milestone is documented, or at least etched in their minds. Their children should simply abide, and follow that path, and they will benefit from a happy and successful future life. That is what they need to do. That is the only way.

However, children are here in the world to find their own purpose and create their own path, and then to go down that path with zeal, enthusiasm and drive. Our role as parents is to merely support them in this process of their search for self-identity, and their path. And we do this best by giving them the roots to grow and the wings to fly. According to Brian Tracy, an American TV host, “If you raise your children to feel that they can accomplish any goal or task they decide upon, you will have succeeded as a parent and you will have given your children the greatest of all blessings.” 

As aware parents, we need to know that our children come into our lives to fulfill their own purpose. They are not here to fulfill our purpose. They are not here to give us a sense of validation. They are not here to carry on our family name or business, to achieve our unfulfilled dreams and aspirations, to provide an insurance policy for our old age, or to bring us glory. They are not here to fulfill our dreams, or think our thoughts, or become someone we think they should be. They are not our family “trophies” — to bring fame and glory to our family name. They are here to walk their own path and sculpt their own life. And as they cross the milestones of that process, we are allowed to feel proud of them.

So if we have pre-defined expectations of what our child should do, and who our child should become, it is imperative that we open up the windows of our mind and let the expectations go — not only because they are not based on any reality, but also because they can really make the environment toxic for our children, like my client who is still worrying about having let her parents down.

There has been a controversy raging in the press in the past about the Chinese style of parenting versus the American style. The Chinese style is more regimented and disciplinarian. It is loaded with the highest expectations of their children, in the path defined by their parents. Chinese children, for example, are not allowed to attend sleepovers, have play dates, be in school plays, complain about not being in school plays, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin; or not play the piano or violin. The American style, on the other hand, gives more space to a child's individual needs, interests, desires, aspirations, feelings and self-esteem. While it is correct to say that the general level of academic performance of the Chinese children is higher, and therefore, we may conclude that the Chinese style is more effective in the long run, I believe that the Chinese system produces performers, not composers. And that, largely, holds true for the Indian system as well.

A quick Google search in the Classical Composers Database throws up just 20 Chinese composers but several pages of American composers. A question for us to think about is do we want our children to be performers (i.e. replicators, followers, doers, executers) of pre-written pieces, or do we want our children to be composers (leaders, designers, inventors, creators) of pieces that they are writing? While the Industrial Age attached a premium to diligence, execution, perfection, towing the line and other such qualities, the knowledge age that we are now living in (and that our children will definitely live in) attaches a premium to creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, abilities to learn on the job, solve problems, be team leaders, and be team players (in formal and informal, team structures), to communicate our ideas and opinions, the ‘can do’ attitude, the ability to be self-motivated and the ability to learn from failures, to name just a few. None of this gets tested by our current system of examinations, and none of these qualities get developed by our current system of education.  

So if we expect our children to get a hundred per cent, and they live up to our expectation, they may fulfil our expectations, but still not be a success in life, and in the workplace. Do we want them to succeed in exams, or do we want them to succeed in life? It is a decision we need to make as parents, because the paths to both may be completely different. Unfortunately, many parents assume that success in exams automatically implies success in life. Success in exams only opens a few doors. Success in life, on the other hand, is a totally different ball game, often having nothing to do with success in exams.

Does that mean that parents should not have any expectations? No, far from it. Children are known to try and live up to parental expectations, and therefore, having some expectations will spur them on to push themselves to achieve greater heights. It will push them to get out of their comfort zone, try out new things and take on new challenges.

All it means is that the expectations should not be about marks, performance and abiding by rigid social norms above all else. 

Our expectations should be around having our children put in their best effort, in whatever area they choose; about them learning to the best of their ability; about them living by values that we model to help our children believe in them; about our children pushing the boundaries and limits of their capabilities to ensure they achieve their potential; about them being socially well-adjusted; about believing in themselves; and, about having their own dreams and aspirations, as different from ours.

So what CAN we give our children? Our knowledge and belief that who they really are is valuable and important! And an honest, authentic, safe and secure environment where they can grow, without fear of rejection or non-acceptance. 

And, what can we expect in return as parents? In the words of Sharon Goodman, we should expect nothing less than “a magnificent adventure as we guide our children to know who they really are!”

Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at

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