Whose Childhood Is It Anyway?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I remember seeing this father at football games when I was in high school. He stood sternly on the sidelines wearing a suntan and a pinstriped suit. When his son came off the field, he always had a word with him. There were no smiles. I felt sorry for this kid. I knew he had one of those fathers.

As it happened, this father pushed his son into the Air Force Academy. Fortunately, a year and a half later, the young man realized that this was his father's dream, not his, and he quit. He finished college at a UC campus, got a job in banking and became a stockbroker.

Yes, we should guide our kids. Yes, we should encourage them. But, as parents, we also need to draw the line between being supportive and being intrusive, between helping our children become their best selves and pushing them to be the selves we secretly want them to be.

"The problem is pervasive," says psychologist Susan Berman, clinical director of the HELP Group in Van Nuys. "We all have a need to impose who we are on our kids. We all have fantasies about wanting our kids to be like us, but our children are not us. Our role is to develop and nurture them as individuals."

When parents find themselves pushing a child in a direction he's resisting, the operative question becomes: Is this my dream or my child's? Whose needs are we talking about?

At a preschool in Bel-Air, a group of mothers sits talking about a hot issue: their kids' clothing choices. One child has a fit each morning because she wants to wear her Snow White pajamas to school and one young boy wants to wear the same T-shirt every day. It's driving the mothers nuts. But why?

Perhaps this is the parents' need to have their children look perfect because they don't feel too confident about themselves, reasons Berman. Who really cares if your kid wears her Halloween harem girl costume to school if she's safe and happy?

Before curbing behavior parents don't happen to like, Berman suggests they ask two clarifying questions: Is it endangering the child? Is it in keeping with our family's values? These questions could rule out a bathing suit on a cold day and a T-shirt with a gun on it. Beyond that, the latitude is rather generous. Applying this test to what parents allow could also help them sort out meatier issues later, such as whether to let a child have a motorcycle or if they will condone birth control.

What parents don't want is a fight over issues that in the long run are meaningless or possibly damaging. "All kids need structure and limits, but you have to pick your battles. If you're too rigid, your kids will stop listening to you by the time you have really large battles to confront in adolescence," Berman says.

What's more, it's hard enough for children to discover who they are in the world without an unfulfilled parent pushing them toward vicarious success. And such parents really know how to take the fun out of being a child.

Jeff Irvine, a Bobby Sox coach for the San Clemente League, knows this firsthand. "'Every team I've ever coached has at least one parent I would like to throttle," he says.

Last season, a young girl joined Irvine's softball team of 9- to 11-year-olds. She had never played, but Irvine saw right away that she had potential. "She was a very responsive player; she only needed to hear an instruction once before getting it," he says. In three practices, Irvine saw her go from a "3 to a 7 on a scale of 10," and the smile never left her face. Three games into the season, her father showed up, started coaching from the sidelines, and her game went foul.

Irvine says her game now ranks about a 4 and he hasn't seen a smile on her face in a long time.

This case represents a classic blurring of boundaries, Berman says. "It's like watching parents and kids in those ceramic painting classes and the parents are telling the kids what color to use. They forget that the outcome is not what's important; the process is. This father is trying to have his daughter fill some unmet need in his life at the expense of her joy in being a child."

This sort of displaced desire is not limited to the athletic field. Karen Terreri, an elementary school teacher at Centralia School in Anaheim, sees it all too often in the classroom. She recalls a fourth-grader who was a good A and B student, outgoing and popular. Her father, however, was concerned because she wasn't a straight-A student like her two older sisters.

"Every time this child got below 92%, this father would call," Terreri says. The father and all his brothers and sisters were doctors because that's what his parents told them they would be, and he wanted the same for his girls.

Terreri worked with him to understand how well his youngest daughter's social skills would serve her in the world. "I helped him understand that universities look at students' extracurricular activities as well as grades when considering them for admission.

"If kids aren't left to develop at their own rate," says Terreri, who has been teaching for 13 years, "they grow into adulthood not knowing how to take initiative because someone else has always taken it for them. They also have a hard time identifying what they really want for themselves."

"The long-term damage is the child ends up feeling like the parent feels," Berman says. "The parent is probably behaving the way he is because he was told he couldn't do it right. Now he's pushing his own kid who in turn begins to feel inadequate."

But is it so wrong to want our children to do well? Of course not. And kids do need coaxing, even prodding, to get over hurdles of personal growth. The key is to know when to stop pushing. When you face opposition, Berman says, figure out what's behind the resistance. See whether it's a fear you can work through together or whether the activity is just not the child's thing.

"When your kid doesn't want to play soccer anymore, you have to weigh his reasons for not playing versus your social needs because you happen to like the soccer moms," says Berman, who sees similar pressures on kids in music lessons.

When children want to quit an activity, Terreri suggests that parents require the child to finish what she started--provided it was the child's idea in the first place. Complete the season, or this set of lessons, then let the child quit if she wants to. "Kids need to learn to finish what they start. That may push them through a fear they were having and they'll find they want to continue. It's healthy for parents to give them a boost and not teach them to be a quitter," she says.

Letting children become who they are intended to become might mean some anxiety at times. It might mean spending afternoons at the ice rink instead of hearing piano practice or tolerating an outfit you wouldn't wear to a dog fight. But the payoff--raising a happy, productive, self-motivated individual--is well worth the temporary discomfort.

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