This might be one of the hardest things for me to have learned as a parent. While I was growing up, my parents had very unreasonable expectations for me and my brother - ones that we could never live up to, though I tried hard my whole life and always, until fairly recently, ended up feeling like a failure. That’s what happens when we set the bar too high for our kids. We certainly don’t intend to do that, but our kids want to please us, to make us proud, so they try their hardest to achieve that goal. The flip side of that is not setting the bar high enough. It’s a very tricky balance and one I’ve struggled with as a parent.
Just like with limit setting, we have to constantly assess each situation and be flexible. For me and my brother, we had different abilities and different interests. It would have been unreasonable for my parents to expect my brother to be a great musician or for me to be a great athlete. We each had our own likes and dislikes. I loved music, art and writing. He liked sports. I’m sure some of that was a sign of the times in which we grew up, but probably not all of it. I knew from very early on that I was a musician and hoped to spend my life doing that.
I wasn’t encouraged to pursue other interests and wasn’t discouraged from pursuing what I loved, but I was never able to please my parents with what I saw as my own successes. That continued on into my adulthood. They never asked about my music and never came to gigs because it wasn’t the music they liked or wanted me to be playing. It wasn’t until they passed that I heard from their friends and acquaintances, at their respective funerals, that my parents were very proud of me and bragged often, playing tapes and CDs of my music to whoever would listen. Although it was wonderful to hear that they really were proud, it made me very sad that I never knew while they were still alive.
Please tell your children about the things you love that they do but be genuine. You are obviously not going to like everything. Just don’t criticize what you don’t like and praise what you do. If they ask you, be honest with them. You can say things like, “I’m not really that fond of …, but you do it well.” Or, “I don’t know much about it, but I’m sure it’s great.” I have given that answer to my children on occasion. We want them to be realistic without discouraging them. I’ve often said, “That was great. I wonder if you could improve it by …” Or, “Have you tried …? That might make it even better.” We all need productive criticism sometimes. Suggestions for improving things are helpful and, if said the right way, they don’t have to be discouraging.
I think the most important thing to remember is that we want to be interested in the things our children are doing, regardless of how we feel about them, but we want to retain our critical eye, too. They depend on our input. Sometimes we are afraid to tell the truth for fear of hurting them. It’s all in the way we approach it. In my song circle, I always encourage people to express the things they like before launching into their critique. Remember, honesty is the best policy, but always approach it gently.