Good intentions can backfire and do more harm than good

“She just doesn’t show any initiative!” my friend Linda vented about her daughter. “I told her she has to have a part-time job somewhere. So she got a job at a restaurant but found it too hard. Now she’s back working in our bistro.” Her scholastic performance wasn’t exactly stellar, either.

Linda was at the boiling point over her daughter Sarah, a senior who just turned 18. Her son, 20, had successfully made the transition from living at home to college — on a full scholarship. Why couldn’t her daughter show some of his academic grit and stick-to-it-ness?

My sister Katie has similar complaints about her two children. Despite her best efforts at coaxing them to become involved in an after-school activity or to get a job, they remain lethargic. Her older son has shown little interest in working and even less in activities.

As the mother of two children, 20 and 17, I can only relate too well to this frustration. As mothers we want the very best for our children. We know how hard it is to survive out there since we had our share of trials and tribulations. They should profit from our superior know-how — no need to reinvent the wheel, right? We feel moved to save them from our fate to the extent possible and will often bend over backwards in the attempt. Sometimes too far, it turns out.

Coaching our kids works when they’re small, but after a certain age is counterproductive. Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez

My friend Linda and sister Katie have something in common: they’re supermoms. By this I mean women who have successful careers and have still managed to raise their kids in a reasonable fashion without going insane (at least not permanently). Both have college degrees: Katie went to night school for eight years to do this; Linda got her bachelor’s and master’s while working on the side. Both women worked hard to advance in the world of work while enduring many broadsides along the way. Oh yes, and during high school they also worked part time at the local Dairy Queen and shoe store; Linda was a competitive figure skater and both participated in many school activities. After graduation, they fended for themselves in searching for college opportunities, making the very best of their situations.

They have led exemplary lives, paving the way for their children, it would seem. This is what we are always exhorted to do — to lead by example, not just at work but at home, too. Actions speak louder than words; if children simply mimic the actions of their parents, they’ll be fine. These mothers have discovered the recipe for success and want to pass it along to their children.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. For one thing, while offspring sometimes do imitate their parents — picking up tennis by playing the game with their parents, for instance — they just as often reject what their parents do precisely because their parents are doing it.

There’s something even more insidious at work. Katie and Linde are so accomplished that rather than inspire their children, they have numbed them. How could I possibly accomplish what she did? they think. Why should I even bother trying? It’s an impossible bar. Comparing themselves to their accomplished mothers, they always come up short. And so they drift along, teenagers struggling to find their way in a sea of hormones, faced with one life-determining decision after another. What do I want to study? What’s the best college for that? How do I prepare for it? Or worse yet: I have no idea what I want in life! How do I figure it out?

Many of us who came of age in the 1970s didn’t have to face that. Our role models were stay-at-home moms who were so far from what we were raised to aspire to that we ignored them completely. We started out with clean slates. What do I want to be? I’m not sure, but I’ll try around and see if I can figure it out. Until then I’ll have a good time doing the high school activities that I enjoy. Our moms didn’t serve as role models, but they weren’t intimidating either. They measured themselves — and were measured by society — by a completely different standard.

This was very liberating. Our standard was not what our mothers were, but what we wanted to be. We were free to develop our own standards either from school, books, our fathers or our imaginations. I still remember a good friend from high school telling me how shocked she was when she suddenly realized at age 10 that her mother was a stay-at-home mom. How could that be? She herself had been inculcated by both parents her entire life with the idea that she would go to college and go on to get a great job. Why on earth was her mom not doing the same? What was she doing at home? Quite simply, she was living according to the standards she had been raised with. She herself had a bachelor’s degree, too, but switched colleges in her junior year to attend the same university as her future husband. Not a very noteworthy move at the time, but one that might raise eyebrows today (why did she have to transfer?).

What’s hard for mothers to understand — myself included — is that there is a flip side to every coin. In our eagerness to show our children the “right” way we drown them in our enthusiasm. I am known for leaving brochures around the house with activities I think my kids should pursue, or sending them links to interesting courses, workshops or classes. “Something for you maybe?” I write in the subject line.

These tactics worked well until they hit their mid-teens. I had an epiphany with my older daughter one day when she was 19. I had been inspired, as I so often was, by an activity she had told me she was considering doing. “Great!” I said. “You could also think about….” and I was off! So many possibilities, such a great world out there, you just have to grab it by the tail! What I didn’t notice was the impact I was having on her. My enthusiasm was noise to her ears; all she wanted to do was escape.

Instead, she sat me down on the couch without saying anything. She took a deep breath and with perfect calm and poise looked me steadily in the eye and said: “Mom, whenever I tell you something, you start giving me advice. I don’t want your advice.”

But that’s what moms do! I wanted to say. Good moms give their kids advice, they guide them, coach them, coax them — that’s what raising kids is all about. They pick them up when they fall, show them a better way — and kids learn from that.

Well, yes and no. Up until a certain point in time, children need this kind of attention. But for my children at this stage, not anymore. What my daughter wants is for me to participate in her life by actively listening, not suggesting; to show interest, not take control; and above all to trust and respect her with my actions and words. She wants someone who will be there for her on call, but who, like a fire department, remains dormant until the siren sounds. Every cell in my body wanted to do everything earthly possible to help her make her life better, but I am no longer in charge of that. She is. I have been relegated from coach to fan. Feedback only on request.

After I recovered from my shock and hurt (I was just trying to help!) and was once again able to think clearly, I reassessed what had just happened. Hadn’t I always taught her to react to situations with logic, not emotion? Hadn’t I always encouraged her to state clearly what her feelings are and what exactly she wants and expects from her interlocutor? In this case, that was me. She had shown great wisdom in her action. I went from being hurt — underneath all the mom trappings, I’m human after all — to being proud. If she was able to confront me, the ultimate authority figure in her life, with such grace, she would be well equipped and prepared to do it in other life situations. Bravo!

My fervent wish has always been to have a healthy, strong relationship with my children when they reach adulthood. We all know the stereotype of the meddling mother. There was even a stand-up routine where the mom calls and leaves messages on her son’s answering machine about the weather that day, complete with recommendations on the appropriate attire for rain, etc., a familiar pattern that evoked much snickering from the audience. This kind of behavior, however well intended, is a recipe for a lousy relationship.

So let your kids get wet. Or fail. Or make other mistakes. If their life is not in danger and they are not about to make a decision that will damage their life permanently (not an easy call, I admit) then leave them be. If they never get any practice making decisions, how will they ever learn how to do it? Better to hold your tongue and your judgement that to drive them away from you with incessant interference. Remember: once they leave home, they are free to have a relationship with you — or not.

Expat life in Germany and raising 2 bilingual children make for a life full of adventure. Check out my blog

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