Don’t let the weight of your ambition crush your child’s dreams

Sangita Bajaj brought her son Tushar, 16, (names changed) to me for therapy for failing grades, moodiness and withdrawal. When I asked the teenager about his hopes and dreams, his answer was a simple, “I guess I will be a heart surgeon like my dad.” The discernible reluctance in his tone became better defined when I sent him for career guidance tests. The results of these showed that Tushar had neither the personality profile nor the aptitude for a medical career. His ‘interest inventory’ pointed in rather a different direction: a love for music and the fine arts. Subsequent sessions revealed that his immense singing talent had been denied, even ridiculed, by his parents to the point that he had eventually just decided to bury his own ambition.

Certainly, this is not an isolated case, nor is it unusual in India to hear that parents expect their children to pick everything from their area of education, to their career streams and even their life partners as per their wishes. In many Indian families, children, especially sons, are still expected to join the family business or just follow the career precedent set by their parents and grandparents. To say that this is unfair is citing the obvious, but what parents often don’t realise is that, in the guise of tradition, they may be forcing their children to live out their own unfulfilled dreams, pushing them towards goals they themselves did not get a chance to try to achieve.

No child is immune to these demands, however subtle (which they rarely are) and since most children have a deep, inner need to please their parents, this saddles them with undue pressure.

What could happen?

A child who is not allowed to follow his or her heart may experience the following:

An identity crisis: With most major decisions being made by the family, the child does not get a chance to become self-aware. He or she may be unsure of what he/she wants, and this could lead to a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction that may haunt the individual through adulthood too.

Stress and thoughts of self-harm: One instance I came across was of a 20-year-old whose parents would refer to him as ‘doctor’ well before he enrolled in medical school. His suicide note read: “I am responsible for my suicide. I cannot fulfil Papa’s dream.” The surge in the youth suicide rate and the incidence of depression are unequivocally related to the stress most children are under. Already battling peer pressure, children are expected to excel in their class, and beyond that, to go on to achieve what their parents once wanted to. Some may handle the pressure better than others, but do you really want to keep pushing until you get to the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

What you should do
Does this mean parents should stop encouraging children? It’s important to remember that there is a fine line between ‘encouraging’ and ‘putting pressurise’. Here’s how to strike the right balance:

Let your child dream: Children need the freedom to pursue their goals. This cannot happen when they are compelled to follow a ‘life map’ that’s been charted out by their parents. Introspect. Honestly consider whether your child is doing what he or she wants to do, or simply walking the line you painted. An open, honest discussion with the child would help too.

Observe: Watching what your child enjoys doing the most could tip you off about what he or she is passionate about. You could also send an older child for a career guidance session. This will help define his or her capabilities and aspirations.

Offer your unconditional support: All children give up midway or go through phases of self-doubt. If your child seems to be going through something, don’t react with criticism, especially if he or she opted to do something different from what you had planned for him or her. Try your best to encourage the child to keep working towards success in his or her chosen field, but also be clear about your definition of success: rather than wealth, link this to a deep sense of satisfaction from one’s work.

This post originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror.