November 17, 2021
Aiming for Authenticity
By Dr Kathy Weston
As parents, one of our greatest challenges is to shelve any expectations or preconceived notions of who our child should be, how they should think, and what aspirations they should hold, based on our own.
In recent months, I have been talking to several parents who had perhaps planned a different pathway for their children and are worried that they aren’t quite ‘fitting the mould’ or adhering to family norms and expectations. One parent found it difficult to accept that his son wasn’t really into sport when Dad was a professional rugby coach himself. One mum felt that her daughter should really be more assertive in her friendships and wanted her daughter’s introversion to be something that was actively ‘worked on’. Another parent was perplexed why her 14 year old could be so interested in simply pottering around the house on a Saturday afternoon, rather than buckling down to do something ‘constructive’.
Often, aspiration-anxiety can lie at the heart of parental expectation and feed disappointment. Parents can worry about a child’s academic career, prospects or a lack of motivation to succeed or focus, compared to their peers. They worry that their child doesn’t have any passions and isn’t the best at anything. They panic that their child may never find their purpose and are doomed to a life of nonchalance and (God forbid!) mediocrity.
These parents love and adore their children very much, but in articulating (or insinuating) a prescribed expectation, disappointment is likely, and they risk making their child feel bad about themselves and unable to fully explore who they are or what makes them tick.
We have all been there! As parents, we have a natural desire to want to know ‘what the scoop is’ and the earlier the better. Heck, we are busy, we want this stuff pinned down! In an uncertain, crazy world, it is appetising to know what school or university they might go to, that they have certain achievements ‘under their belt’, and one or two friendships that are secure for life. However, our desire to see that everything is just ‘tickety-boo’, and the speed at which we want it all to happen, risks limiting our children’s natural and paced discovery of their personal identity.
Childhood and the teenage years should be all about wondering, curiosity, experimentation, asking questions and having the freedom to play, be bored, imagine, figure things out and make copious mistakes. As parents, we all need to remember that unrealistic expectations and over-prescription in children’s lives risks killing their creativity, innate passion and, counterintuitively, may squash the individuality and character that we are so keen to see emerge.
Another fuelling factor in the rush to be prescriptive about our children's outcomes is FOMO. Parents may worry that their child is missing out by not having a phone at an early age or access to the wide variety of apps, opportunities and experiences that their friends may be hurtling towards.
Again, it is easier to lean towards the direction that others are moving towards, but we should always question whether a particular decision is right for our own children and for our own family. Arguably, parental desire to see children flourish as individuals is easily compromised by the rush to do what everyone else is doing. By taking our time, and making decisions that are entirely right for our own children, in that moment, we are truly doing what is best.
It can be really hard to ‘listen out’ for who our child is; it takes time and it is made tougher by the fact that they themselves may not even recognise what they enjoy doing or what truly makes them happy until it is noticed by others. Recently, I made the remarkable yet utterly obvious observation that my 15 year old climbs everything; every wall, tree, fence, pole or roof! Once a pattern in play or interest is noticed, no matter the age of the child, we can think about how to fuel that interest, build on it, support it, lean into it.
Whatever our children lean towards, it is not our job to judge. Our patience, sensitivity and our expressed, unconditional love for who they are, or will become, can only fuel their self-confidence and give them the psychological freedom to explore their enormous potential.
I spent part of last weekend with the award-winning, documentary family photographer, Emma Collins.
I am an enormous fan of her work (see the picture above). I love how her photography captures the raw authenticity of family life; nothing is sugar-coated. Every time I look at one of her pictures, I spend some time dwelling on it, studying it and wonder how on earth she managed to tell such a story with one click of the camera.
Last weekend, I invited Emma into my own home for a family photo shoot. Nobody dressed up ‘specially’, no hair was brushed and nobody stood or sat in unnatural positions awkwardly posing for the camera. Emma merges into the background and somehow the children forget she is there. Before you know it, they acting au naturel and chaos ensues (which is just brilliant for documentary family photographers like Emma).
By exposing the ‘imperfect’ and allowing Emma to capture it for all time, I am hoping my own children will one day be able to look back and see that we enjoyed our imperfect family, that we relished their individuality and valued authentic portrayal. Documentary photography of Emma’s kind, is in my view, the perfect antidote to society’s drive towards toxic perfectionism and serves to remind us that we are all good enough, just as we are.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you’d like to preserve your own family life in print, parents in Tooled Up schools are entitled to a special 10% discount on Emma Collins’ ‘day-in-the-life’ or ‘1/2 day-in-the-life’ photo shoots. Use the code KW2021 at any time between now and 31st December 2021. Vouchers are available for sessions bought as gifts.
In other news, our Mental Health Education Week got started on Monday. It’s not too late to join us this evening to learn about the importance of sleep for mental health with sleep practitioner Joanna Kippax. Or, you may choose to join us later in the week when we talk to psychiatrist, Dr Anna Conway Morris about OCD and anxiety, or Dr Tamsyn Noble about when to see a clinical psychologist and what happens when you or your child does. Book your free tickets now.