A topic we hear a lot about in the media, and anybody who either has kids, has friends and family with kids or is involved with education in any way will almost certainly have come across someone who comes into the category. Who knows, you might even be in that category yourself.
I have very mixed feelings about this issue, to be honest. As a non-parent and never will be parent, some people might say I have no right to comment, but tough luck I am going to do so anyway. There is part of me that thinks that, to a certain extent, being a pushy parent is fine. I completely understand that people want the very best for their children, and I am fine with that. At the same time, I am totally in favour of encouraging your children to do their very best, to be focused, hard working, high achieving and successful. And there is little doubt in my mind that those who would be considered pushy parents are acting in a way that they think is to the benefit of their children.
Now, as you read this, you may be expecting me to make criticisms based on these parents’ attitudes, but that is not what I intend to do. I am not a fellow parent, teacher or youth leader, and so do not have to deal with this attitude on a daily basis. My concern is entirely for the effects on children of their parents pushing them too hard. And here, I speak from personal experience.
I had what would generally be considered a decent childhood. A stable family, not well-off but never on the breadline, no abuse or mistreatment, happy holidays…but that is only part of the story. I am a living, breathing example of the impact that a pushy parent can have in the longer term. My mum was a huge influence on my life, throughout childhood and as probably my best friend in my early adult life. It was a major shock when she died of ovarian cancer two weeks after her 50th birthday. However, for all the good things about our relationship, I know that there is another, unfortunate, side too, and that is the negative impact that her well-meaning pushing of me as a child has had. At school I was blessed – or, as I came to see it at times, cursed – with a good brain. Not a prodigy who took A-levels at six and Oxford entrance exams at nine, but always at the top of the class and I pretty much breezed through my education with minimal difficulty. That was where the problems began. Because I would often get full marks in work and tests, it was not something that I ever got praised for, in fact if I got less than full marks it was a disaster and I was left feeling like a total failure. There were times when I longed, just once, to be one of the kids who was struggling near the bottom of the class, so that I could get seven out of ten and be praised, rather than being criticised for getting eight or nine. I used to sit alone and cry, wishing I could be like them, so somebody would say well done. I never really got that, doing well was expected and I could only ever disappoint by falling short of perfect.
It wasn’t just in the academic sphere either. Everything I did had to be perfect – if I was doing a reading at a church service or something in a school event, it had to be practiced morning, noon and night until I could recite it from memory rather than reading it. And any mistakes were met with disbelief at how I could let down my parents so much. Sports were similar. For most kids, primary school sports day is a bit of fun, an afternoon out of the classroom when your parents come and see you run and hopefully win a piece of ribbon on a safety pin. Not for me. I had to train hard in the weeks leading up to the event. And on the day itself, there was no lunch, in case it slowed me down, just a drink and a couple of glucose tablets. I was pretty fast on the track and did get my share of those ribbons, but was it really worth the way it was approached?
So, how have these things influenced me? The answer is, a lot. I am terrified of making mistakes, doing things wrong, always so eager to please that I can be overbearing. Totally convinced that if someone is unhappy, it is because I have done something wrong and they are disappointed with me. Until recently, I have given up on anything that I have not immediately been good at, desperate not to be less than perfect at something. It can make me hell to live with for other people, but they should try living with it inside your own head. With a lot of help and support, I have learned to come to terms with these things and to see the world differently but it has not been easy by any means.
I know that my mum would never have intended anything bad to come of what she did. She was doing what all parents do – making it up as they go along. As the saying goes, babies don’t come with a manual. Indeed, there is part of me that feels very guilty for talking about these things now. I do so, not out of disrespect for my mum – who taught me so many things that have shaped the good and positive aspects of my character – or out of self-pity, but to sound a warning note to any current or potential pushy parents out there. My message to them is this – encourage your children to aim high and to do their best at all times, but please, please, please do not overdo it. Praise them when they do something right, don’t just criticise when they do something wrong. And let them be children – pressure and stress will come soon enough to their lives. If just one person takes on board what I have said, and it can save future heartache for their children, it will have been worthwhile.