More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

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Vanity parenting and adolescent performance
by Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D. , Psychology Today
February 21, 2011

Parents can get overinvested in their child's performance.

On the face of it, it seems like a casual question for parents to be asked: "How is your child doing?" Thus is the performance trap of vanity parenting sprung.

"Very well," they would like to testify about how constructively their son or daughter is growing up. Although they may wonder, " ?doing' in reference to what or to whom?" Is there some performance standard to be met? Is there some comparison to be made? Is there some contest to be won? If so, who is supposed to be the winner, the child or the parents?

This matter of "doing" raises a complexity of performance issues - about the importance of performance in general, about how a child's performance can decline in adolescence, about performance of the child in question, and about the role of parents in helping make this performance so.

Our national preoccupation with performance is at least partly culturally induced. Not only are we a freedom-loving culture that values individuality, independence, and initiative; we are also a performance-loving culture in which ambition, competition, and achievement are prized as well. The high performers across all kinds of human endeavor are paid a lot of positive public attention (and often a lot of money), even serving as role models to spur the efforts of young people and the hopes of their parents on.

For many parents, one goal of parenting is to help their child learn to achieve at his or her optimal level. And there are sound reasons for this objective. First, children feel personally affirmed when they actualize their performance potential. Second, by doing so they become well equipped to compete for social survival as adults. And third, there is often some social benefit from what high performance can achieve. However, it's hard for parents to focus on their child's performance without focussing to some degree on their own.

In parenting, this performance ethic can run very deep in at least two ways. Parents can find themselves in rivalry with other parents over whose child is excelling and advancing faster, over whose child is earning the better opportunities, over whose child is receiving the most glowing reviews. And parents can feel impelled to encourage their child to do well now in order to do well later. For example, they want to launch their son or daughter on a trajectory of success by following the popular performance scenario of getting good grades in school, getting into a good college, getting a good job, and getting a good living, thereby fulfilling the American dream of materially doing well.

Often their child starts out in the right direction until adolescence begins (around ages 9 - 13) when it can seem to parents that the young person's performance, in multiple ways, suddenly takes a turn for the worse.

Interview parents of young children, and those adults usually feel pretty confident and positive about their own performance as parents because in school and at home the little boy or girl is "on track" and performing well. He or she works hard, cooperates with them, has interests they understand and approve, stays out of trouble, and is generally a pleasure to live with. But interview parents of adolescents and you tend to get a different story. These adults are far less confident about how they and their adolescent are doing.

Contrasted to the relatively compatible and endearing child, the adolescent is more problematic and abrasive to parent. He or she often performs less well in a variety of ways that cause parents concern. In school there can be less motivation to work hard or do the work at all. With influential and impulsive peers there can be more chance to get into trouble. Adjusting to developmental change like puberty there can be more vulnerability to emotional duress. At home, there can be more active resistance (argument) and passive resistance (delay) for parents to contend with when they want compliance. They may even have concern that emerging adolescent interests and values threaten to lead their young person astray.

So when their teenager starts "doing badly" like this, parents may ask themselves, "what have we done wrong?" The answer usually is "nothing." The developmental engines of separation (for social growth), differentiation (for individuality), and opposition (for autonomy) that drive adolescent independence simply make these changes in performance so.

At this point, the trap of responsibility that parents can fall into is subscribing to an interpersonal equation that links the child's performance with their own: parents = child. This equation gives rise to the misleading input/output theory of parenting: "How our child turns out depends entirely on the parenting we put in."

By this crediting this equation, parents come to believe that how well or badly the child performs directly reflects how well or badly their parenting was done. In the extreme, an "A" student is the outcome of "A" parenting, or a "failing" student is the outcome of "failed" parenting. Of course, this equation is of questionable validity.

Influential as parenting may be, it is only one of many variables that effect child behavior - genetic make up, media impact, peer companionship, physical health, social exposure, worldly experience, chance events, individuality, personal choices, to name a few. Parenting counts for some, but by no means all of how an adolescent acts now or turns out later.

Therefore, when it come to their adolescent's ups and downs, it behooves the parents not to appropriate too much credit for the good or too much blame for the bad. Better they should take some of the performance pressure out of parenting by accepting the realistic extent and limits of their parental influence.

Particularly at hard times, this means understanding that good parents have good children who will sometimes make bad choices in the normal trial and error process of growing up. A bad performance doesn't mean the child is bad any more than it means the parenting was bad. It just that there means that no child and no parenting is perfect, and that's okay.

And if they harbor some desire to be perfect parents, they might want to reflect on this. The only way to be perfect parents is to have a perfect child, and who wants to put that kind of performance pressure on a growing boy or girl?

Finally, when performance parenting becomes vanity parenting, a lot of unhappiness for the child (and parents) can follow. What is vanity parenting? When parents look to their child to bring them credit in the eyes of the world, when they push their child to reflect well on themselves, they are at risk of ?vanity parenting', of using the child's performance to embellish their own. To be ?trophy' parents they must have a ?trophy' child. A few examples follow.

Where a child's high achievement becomes a paramount parenting priority, and censure follows any degree of failure, the child can end up feeling treated more like a human doer than a human being, valued as a performer more than a person, having to earn parental love rather than having it guaranteed.

Where parents expect a high return in their child's performance based on the high investment (of time, energy, and resources) they have made, the child can feel pressure of indebtedness, obligated to lead the life parents planned or risk disappointing them if he or she does not.

Where parents praise their child, "We are so proud of you!" a child can link personal performance to parental accomplishment, under pressure to make parents look good, wishing these adults did not depend their well-being on how well he or she does, wishing they had simply said "Good for you!"

Where ambitious parents tell the child "we only want the best for you," the child usually knows this is a code phrase for something more selfish: "What we really want is the best from you in order to affirm ourselves."

Better to keep parenting from becoming a competition sport, and reclaim it as an act of love instead.
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