There were two things I really wanted when I was 14 and about to enter high school. One was to go to a certain elite private prep school in my hometown. The other was to be a cheerleader. I applied to the prep school, and was rejected.
Then I tried out for the freshman cheer squad at the public high school I was going to attend, and made it. I was even offered the position of cheer captain! But I wasn’t going to realize that dream either, because my father forbade it.
I was born for better things, my dad told me. No daughter of his was going to cheer for the accomplishments of others; his daughter was going to be the person other people cheered for. She was going to be an academic, like him. She was going to question authority, as he did. She was going to be a socialist and feminist, as he was. She was going to fight the fight he had dedicated his life to fighting.
And that was that.
It took me decades to realize that much of what I’d become as an adult had very little to do with my own talents and interests as a person, and a lot to do with what my father had wanted and needed me to be. Like many loving but narcissistic parents, my father had lived through me. I had been a good dancer and excellent cheerleader, but my father had not been able to see my interests because they did not coincide with his own.
Susan Heitler, a Harvard educated Denver psychologist, has written about the dangers of parents trying to live through their children. This pressure almost always leads to the children imploding at some point, as their own needs and wants are overlooked in order to fill the parent’s emotional needs.
(In my case, it has led to me writing a memoir—out this coming winter—about finally, in my early 40s, coming to embrace and recognize my true self.)
So imagine the conundrum I recently found myself in when my own son was accepted to the very same prep school that rejected me 30 years ago. I found myself getting giddy looking at his acceptance letter. He was in! I was so happy. Vindication!
“You got in!” I cried, waving the letter at my child.
He barely looked up from his Kindle. “So?” he asked.
“Don’t you want to go there?” I was crestfallen.
“Not really,” said my son with a shrug.
“But it’s an amazing school!” I cried.
“I like my school now,” he said of the good, but not excellent, Catholic school he attends.
I was about to come back with all the reasons the prep school was better than his current school, but in that moment, I remembered how much I’d loved cheerleading. My son loved Catholicism, and the rural community we now lived in.
I stepped back.
I reigned in my own unmet needs for validation, and my unrequited love of that particular school.
I reminded myself that my son’s life wasn’t about me. It was about him. It was about what he needed, not what I’d wanted decades before.
“You don’t have to go there,” I told him.
Then I realized that he didn’t know anything about the school, and ought to at least experience it before he decided.
“You can decide for yourself,” I told him. “But I at least want you to attend the open house and see what you think. If, after that, you still want to stay where you are now, fine. I’m fine with that.”
My son agreed, and seemed pleased that I trusted him to make such an important decision for himself. We went to the open house, and he sat in on several classes. He got to meet other students there, and ask them questions. He got to tour the grounds. I did my best to maintain a poker face.
At the end of the tour, my son told me he was surprised because he really liked the prep school.
“It’s a lot better than my school now,” he admitted. “I especially like the math. I haven’t learned anything new in math for three years. I feel like at the prep school I’d be challenged. The teachers are really good. I thought the kids were really cool, too. And the place looks like a college. It’s pretty cool. I can always go to church for the religious part.”
I worried that he was saying this just to please me, that I’d given off subtle hints. “Don’t do this to please me,” I said. “I want you to do what you think is best for you. I will support you.”
“I know, mom,” he said with a smile. “I appreciate that. But I really do like this place better. I didn’t actually know a school could be like this. Did you know they have wrestling for sixth grade? How cool is that?”
So, back we will move to the big city, so my son can go to the prep school starting in the fall. I am truly thrilled he chose to go there, but I can honestly say that I would have been just as happy for him if he’d chosen not to.
The key to being a good parent, as far as I can tell, is to guide and support your child toward being the best version of themselves they can be, and not push them to be a cheap imitation of you.
It’s not always easy to do this.
Actually, it’s never easy to do this. But for the well-being of our children, it’s imperative.