Are your good intentions stopping your teen from living their best life?
I have to say I'm a bit nervous about writing this blog post. But, prompted by some recent very vulnerable (and brave) admissions by parent members of The Extraordinaries Club and interactions with parents of the students we work with over a number of years I feel moved to ask this:
Are your good intentions stopping your teen from living their best life?
What do you want for your child?
As an academic coach I often interact with parents who have grand ambitions for their children. They want them to go to great universities (such as Oxbridge), get well respected professional qualifications (doctors, lawyers, engineers) and have well-paying, secure jobs.
All this is great – so long as it's the right thing for the child.
But, sometimes it isn't.
The parents are wanting their children to fulfill some need or desire in themselves, or counteract some past difficulty, without really looking at the child they have in front of them and asking whether pushing them in a certain direction will lead to them living their best life.
What's your child's zone of genius?
Several years ago, when I was first starting out as an academic coach, I read the book The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks.
In the book, Hendricks talks about all activities in your life falling into four main zones:
- The Zone of Incompetence which is made up of all the activities we're not good at
- The Zone of Competence which is made up of things you're competent at, but plenty of other people are competent at them too.
- The Zone of Excellence which contains the things you do extremely well (better than most of the people around you).
- The Zone of Genius which is the set of activities that you're uniquely suited to do. Hendricks says that, ‘Liberating and expressing your natural genius is your ultimate path to success and life satisfaction.'
I feel it very deeply when a parent comes to me and I can tell that they're not looking at the child in front of them and trying to help them discover and define their genius zone so that they can live that life of success and satisfaction. Instead, they're trying to turn their child into something that they're not, confining them to live in one of the other three zones. They don't do this out of malice – it more often happens as a lack of self-awareness around their own motivations and parenting.
Where do your goals for your child come from?
One big pattern that I've noticed amongst parents is wanting their children to achieve ‘curated goals'.
Curated goals are socially approved things that earn praise, and even jealousy, from other parents, family members and society.
I remember as a twenty something in my first job I came up with a list of curated wants – because I thought these were the kinds of things I was supposed to want with my educational background, interests and peers. This went something like:
- Become a director of the company I worked for in my thirties
- Get elected as an MP in my forties
- Serve as an MP for 10-15 years before becoming a teacher in my 50s so I could share all the experience I'd had in life with the next generation
However, the job I was in wasn't in my genius zone and I had a bit of a mental health breakdown before leaving to travel around the world and accelerating my plan to become a teacher.
The curated wants I hear from parents are things like wanting children to become doctors or lawyers when that's not what their children want. I remember talking to a girl from a south Asian family when I went to speak in a school. She desperately wanted to study history but her parents would only let her go to university if she studied law. She wasn't interested in law and the poor girl felt she was being torn in half being forced to study something that wasn't what she loved.
Looking beneath the surface of your goals for your child
However, I think beneath the surface of many curated wants is a deep fear of scarcity. On a recent parents only coaching call in The Extraordinaries Club several mums and dads very honestly admitted that their goals for their children were a direct reaction to the poor conditions that they were brought up in.
They had achieved a certain level of comfort and they wanted their children to be able to sustain this for themselves into their adult lives.
One mum even said that she wasn't at all happy in the professional job she now had, but she wanted the same for her son because she didn't want him to experience the lack in his adulthood that she'd felt in her childhood.
Do you want your child to be happy?
Some years, when I've had these discussions with parents about the motivations behind what they want for their children, lots of people have said that they just want their children to be happy.
This is a fairly vague notion and last year I challenged one mum about what this actually meant.
She said that she wanted her child to have a good, fulfilling job like the one she had.
There's nothing wrong with this, except she was projecting her definitions of happiness and fulfillment on to her child.
Had she stepped back and asked what being happy meant to her child? Had she thought about what her child would find fulfilling?
Is your fear of scarcity forcing your child to play small?
As adults we all understand the daily battle to get all the things done, pay the bills and find the moments in life that make the tough bits worthwhile. There's been rather too much of that during the pandemic.
But, when you're not looking at your child and really seeing them for who they are, and what their genius zone is, you're confining them to more of the same. You're stopping them from living the life of deep fulfillment and contribution to the world that they could have if you just stepped aside with your projections of what you want for them.
The education system doesn't help
Our current education system forces young people to fit into boxes and jump through hoops that don't necessarily suit them. What you have to remember is that our children are being processed through an industrialised education system that has been designed around a particular academic ideology. It certainly wasn't built to bring out the best in our creative, practical and neurodiverse children.
The trouble is, many of us have been swept into the current of needing to conform with the system we have. Yes, there are certain things that every student needs to do to facilitate their next step such as passing English and maths GCSEs. But, if we were to allow ourselves as parents to dismiss the things that don't serve our children in education and instead let them focus on flourishing with the talents and abilities they naturally have we'd all be happier.
If you've got a hugely creative child who just can't get their head around science GCSE does it really matter? Yes, there's value in understanding some basic scientific concepts (and I, for one, find it fascinating) but if it's not making them happy, and it's not helping them to move into their genius zone should we really sweat it? Maybe your child is destined to create ground-breaking catwalk collections or devices that will change the lives of disabled people if only we'd let them fully realise their zone of genius.
Step back and see your child for who they really are
If you do one thing as a result of reading this, I ask you to step back and see your child for who they really are. Think about the things that make them unique and different. Get curious about what their zone of genius might be.
If you stop seeing your child, their education and qualifications as either a status symbol that you can show off with pride or as someone who's just avoiding the scarcity you experienced in your youth you might just set them free to live a fulfilling, rewarding life helping to make the world a better place in a big and meaningful way.
I know that the closer I am to working in my zone of genius the happier I am and the more smoothly life seems to flow. Maybe you can recognise this in your own life? Wouldn't the greatest gift you could give your child be the freedom to live their best life in a feeling of ease and flow?
I would love to know your thoughts and comments about this article in the comment section below.