As a dad, I want what’s best for my kids.
I want them to know I love them unconditionally. I try to spend quality time with them. I try to provide for all their needs. I try to be an example. I tell them how much I love them. I pray for them. I believe in them. I want them to know that I’m there for them no matter what.
I’m not alone in this. My parents did this for me. Most parents seek to provide this for their children.
But there’s another gift we can give our children that’s too often overlooked. It’s not tied to how much we love them. In fact, the more we love our children, the more often we typically deny them of this gift.
The gift I’m referring to is giving them space to become their own person. The gift I’m talking about is not saddling them with unrealistic expectations about what they need to do with their life.
Note that I said unrealistic expectations. Parents should set a high bar for their children. My parents certainly had high expectations of me. They wanted me to be honest. They wanted me to have integrity. They expected me to be kind, have good manners, and serve those in need. These are healthy expectations.
But in an effort to do what’s best for our child, too many of us take our expectations too far. We expect them to do certain things with their life. We expect our child to become a doctor or lawyer, or, heaven forbid, an investment banker. We expect them to take over the family business. We expect them to play a certain sport or go to a certain university. We expect them to do all the things we did. Or, we expect them to do all the things we weren’t able to do.
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is not having any of these expectations of me. In college, as I was evaluating how to start my career, I went to them for advice. My parents asked questions and helped me think through my options, but they pushed me to decide for myself. They wanted me to chart my own course.
Years after Lehman Brothers imploded and I decided to make a career change, they were encouraging. I’d invested years developing expertise in finance, a field many view as prestigious. But my new career plan was to pivot to a new field, Human Resources, a field many view negatively. Once again, when I sought their perspective, it was clear that they didn’t need my decision to validate who they were. They wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to make decisions on my own.
As my children get older, I realize just how special this gift is. Too often, well intentioned parents saddle their children with unrealistic expectations. They think they know what’s best for their kids, so they map out what they need to do and micromanage all the experiences they need to have in order to reach that goal.
This typically works really well for a season, but it comes at a cost. Their children may resent them. Or they may lose their drive to become excellent. They become overly worried about what their parents think. They struggle with confidence. They feel like they’re never living up to expectations. They don’t learn to make their own decisions. They often burn out or become miserable in their careers.
I’m grateful my parents didn’t burden me with impossible expectations. They wanted me to be a good person, but I didn’t have to follow a certain career path or make certain decisions to validate them. They gave me space to discover my talents and become my own person. I didn’t have to earn their love. They showed me I was enough no matter what.
I hope to give my children that same gift.