I still feel a bit embarrassed when I recall a childhood experience, which occurred on a soccer field. I was only eight years old and, admittedly, no athlete. During games, I mostly sat on the playing field, humming while weaving wreaths from dandelion stems while trying to stay out of the way of the competition, which eluded me.
During one such game, however, I finally felt the competitive itch. Our star forward had just stolen the ball and set up the perfect shot, right in front of the goal. As she wound up to score, I saw a free ball and kicked it in the best way that I knew how- right out of bounds. Needless to say, my teammates never forgave me. I don’t blame them.
The most interesting part of that experience was the fuming father of the star forward. In response to my embarrassing mistake, he had a full adult tantrum and ruthlessly ranted at me from the sidelines. I recall feeling terrified. Surely, no error on a child’s soccer field could be so horrible as to warrant that type of berating.
The ranting father wasn’t an anomaly. Behavior just like his exemplifies the term soccer mom, or in his case soccer dad. Inherently, being called a soccer mom should be a good thing, but in our culture we use the term in a pejorative way. Instead of referring to a parent who facilitates a child’s love of soccer, it often refers to the parent’s unhealthy absorption with their children. So how do we avoid becoming soccer moms and maintain our role as the sane parents on the sidelines?
I’ll admit, I’ve asked this question myself considering that every parent is occasionally guilty of overvaluing their children by placing an undue amount of emphasis on their abilities and success, just like the scary soccer dad.
Ready for a true confession? When my kids were babies, I loved attending their routine check-ups and I would beam when the doctor made flattering observations. “Mrs. Paral, I have never, in all my years of practice, seen a baby stand so securely at such a young age.” Or my favorite, “Mrs. Paral, I have never seen a baby identify all his shapes, including the oval, at just over a year of age.”
I felt unabashed pride and was even a little competitive about my baby’s accomplishments. Perhaps, it is fair to say that I was a soccer mom in-training. It took emerging from the baby fog to resume my studies in child development to recall all that I had learned about the role of nature and nurture upon development.
*If you want to learn more about the role of nature and nurture, I suggest you Judith Rich Harris’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Nurture Assumption.
To sum up centuries of the nature verses nurture debate, nature (i.e. genetics) matters, especially when looking at long-term outcomes, but nurture can play an important role too and even influence the expression of a child’s genes. When it comes to child development, parents certainly matter, but not as much as we think we do and certainly not as much as we sometimes feel that we ought to matter.
Whether you are a tiger mother or a free-range parent, your beliefs about how much you matter won’t change the fact that you can only make so big of an impact upon your children. In fact, research demonstrates that overvaluing your parental role and your children can lead to negative outcomes.
I confessed that I spent my early parenting years believing that my children were naturally gifted and deserved special recognition for their abilities. But, when one of my children was around the age of three, I began noticing that he was becoming a bit of a perfectionist. He was very impatient with mistakes and refused to challenge himself. In my attempts to nurture a healthier mindset for him, I first had to ask myself what I might be doing to contribute to this attitude.
A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the same researcher which studied the harmful effects of inflated praise, Eddie Brummelman, concludes that a parent’s overvaluation of their children does effect their parenting behavior and can contribute to a child’s self-view and narcissism. With an added sting, the researchers also note that a parent’s overvaluing their child does not result in that child actually possessing superior abilities.
One of the problems with believing that our children are smarter, better or more deserving than other children is that the belief is deeply rooted and it will take work to extract it from our minds and our practices. For those of us (including myself) who struggle with feeling like we can nurture the perfect child through superior parenting, a new study published in the Journal of Intelligence cites parent and family characteristics as insignificant contributors in determining a child’s IQ. For others who feel like their genetics entitles their children to better opportunities and favor, see evidence from a past Intelligent Nest article on praise, that training a child to believe this about themselves through inflated praise and other parenting behavior can be pernicious and lead to low self-esteem, perfectionism and, in some cases, depression.
*For more on parents playing favorites with their children above others, see past Intelligent Nest article, The Death of Mama Bear.
A harsh reality for parents is that we should love and have faith in our children’s potential and abilities. However, sometimes our belief in who we think our children are and what their life should be like is inaccurate and this can be damaging to the child and parent-child relationship. Sometimes parental beliefs about who our children are have more to do with who we need them to be, rather than who they actually are.
When I was a new mom, I needed my babies to be amazing because I had just given up my professional life and was starting over at home. My identity was in limbo and to strengthen it, I used my children’s identity to bolster my sense of self-worth. But, I have found that the more that I am able to assess my own personal value and worth apart from my children as they age, the more I am able to allow my kids to just be themselves.
As a parent community, let’s nurture and celebrate the strengths in our children, while supporting them in their weaknesses. Together, we can reclaim the throne of the soccer mom and soccer dad.