I cringe every time I hear a parent encouraging their child to be the number one in whatever. I have seen parents get very upset because their five year old child could not score the winning goal in soccer. I have seen parents encourage their child to be the first one done when eating with peers. Or how about the child whose parents have decided that their five year old will be the number one student in his kindergarten class? How about the parents who have decided that their child will be a doctor, an engineer, or scientist when they grow up? The examples go on and on. These examples illustrate how we, as parents, program our kids very early on to believe that we should settle for nothing less than being number one.
It is very true that we live in a very competitive world and we need to prepare our children for it. What makes it worse is that today our world no longer consists only of the people in our microcosm. It literally includes the whole world with the availability of technology and being a global market. So, it is very natural for parents to feel anxious about how their child will compete in this global, competitive world. The problem is that it is risky business when parents put this kind of pressure on their children day in and day out.
At first, this kind of pressure doesn’t seem to be a problem because when children are very young they want to please their parents, teachers, grandparents, aunts and uncles…basically any adult who plays a significant role in their lives. Therefore, young children happily go along with their parents’ plans until they start thinking for themselves. For some, this independent thinking happens early on and for others it doesn’t happen until adulthood. Yet for some, it never happens. This is most worrisome.
I see this kind of pressure as risky business because the costs are high for our children. One of three outcomes will occur for children. Outcome 1 is that both the parents and the child’s wishes match and everyone is happy. This result is probably less likely than one would hope. Outcome 2 is that the child will reject the parents’ wishes and pursue their own dreams. Rifts may occur in the family, but ultimately the parents get over it and the child is happy. This is healthy. Outcome 3 is that the child goes along with their parents’ wishes when they do not want to from the bottom of their hearts, but they do not communicate this to their parents in fear of disappointing them. This is probably more common than one would think. I know I have observed this quite a bit in my own Nepalese culture where parents are revered and children constantly try to meet their expectations even though they really do not want to.
The costs of Outcome 3 can range anywhere from feeling anxious over the smallest things in life to severe depression leading to suicide. Little bit of anxiety can actually be healthy. For instance, getting anxious over an upcoming Math test and studying for it is a good thing. However, unhealthy anxiety can have the opposite effect of what parents want for their child. When children feel that pressure that they have to excel in order to gain approval then their self-esteem and confidence are compromised. They will constantly compare themselves to others as a way of measuring their self-worth. This is not healthy. A perfectly competent person can do very poorly under this kind of pressure. Over time, this anxiety can lead to depression and take a major hit on their self-worth. Professional help is warranted at this time.
So, what should well-meaning parents do to avoid the risks? The answer is pretty simple, but harder to balance. Parents need to relieve this pressure and instead encourage their child to do their best rather than being the best. I am not suggesting that parents encourage mediocrity rather that they encourage their child to reach his or her own potential wherever that may be for that child. When the pressure is lifted, children will be at ease, perform better, and be happier. Less pressure equals better product.