It’s important for parents to support their children without imposing unrealistic goals and ideals
I was talking with a mother and father a short while ago. We were discussing their daughter and how they needed to reconcile her low marks with the likelihood she would do well in her Year 12 final exams, and succeed in gaining an ATAR that would get her into a university course desired by the parents. I suggested the parents prepare for the possibility their daughter may not get into university. Indeed, based on recent exam outcomes she would be very unlikely to get into any of the courses they had suggested for her. I suggested that, in the alternative, they needed to consider TAFE courses as a possible option. The mother then said, “I guess if she does fashion she could start her own fashion label… or if she did a chef’s course she could open a chain of restaurants like Jamie Oliver.”
At this point I inquired as to why their daughter should be compelled to become famous. In each scenario they had articulated, the message to their daughter was one of ‘you are nothing unless you are something famous, rich and well-known’. This could be seen in their original desire to see her gain entry into particular university courses, despite watching her struggle with reading comprehension and exams in every year of high school. When it came to the point where accepting a realistic alternative was required, they said, ‘we just want her to be happy’. Yet happiness to them did not start with what their daughter wanted. Rather, it constituted fame and wealth. Even the most realistic post-school options were being turned into something where the daughter was being set up for failure and low self-esteem. After all, how many fashion designers are there and how many chefs run their own restaurant chains?
It seems to me that if we want to complicate things for adolescents we can tell them they are both okay, and also not okay, within two sentences. This should confuse them enough to know that we do not know. It should also give them plenty to sort through for years after compulsory schooling finishes.
Parents always assert that they want what is best for their child(ren), but not knowing what form that might actually take, we impose our understanding of what has worked in our own lives on them. At best, this is well-meaning, but alas also often clumsy. At worst however, such a misplaced sense of what matters can be soul destroying for young men and women who compare themselves to others and who feel like they want to please parents but are not quite ever up to the mark.
Many adults know that a true feeling of self-worth and self-understanding can come many years after school. Such feelings are based on experiences and cannot simply be assumed. A child with low self-esteem dressed in the best clothes may still not give eye contact or talk with conviction. Feelings of self-worth and confidence grow over time, imperceptibly as life’s problems, small and large, are confronted. If the struggle is exacerbated by a low self-esteem and a default position of second guessing everything, then the building of self-knowledge can take years longer.
It may be time to have a post-school ‘course’ titled “Just Me”. When a child or adolescent is asked what they would like to be when they grow up they could reply “just me”. When a student in Year 12 is asked what they will study next they could reply, “A course in self-understanding called ‘Just Me’. Once I am more certain about who I am, without the complication of what others need me to be, or tell me I should be, or want me to be, then I will have a clearer sense of what I shall become. At that point I will know whether or not I want to do further study, and if so, what to study.”
If we take time to ponder society, we see that most people are not famous, do not own restaurant chains and appear on the social pages of the weekend papers. Most people live reasonable, settled, ordinary lives, confronting ordinary problems, like how to balance work and home life, maintain friendships and get through a tax return. Most people do not find their self-worth tied to trying to be something that others need them to be.
Before a person can become extraordinary they need to become ordinary. An ordinary person is one who does not aspire to be something other, because who they are is okay.
Of course, if a person opts to do something extraordinary, then it should come from their own volition rather than coming from a feeling of compulsion, ambition for fame, title or ‘success’, determination for recognition or an inner restlessness arising from a need to always be something better.
Perhaps it is time for us all to be “Just Me”.