As with each of the 7 Worst Mistakes that Good Parents Make, #7–Your kids fulfilling your dreams–is sneaky. A parent can look like he cares about how his child is doing, can come across like he simply yearns for his child to be successful, and that he wants this for the child’s sake, when really he wants it for his own ego needs. Each of the 7 Mistakes has this quality, that being that parents can look like they’re doing what they’re doing for one reason, when in fact they are really doing it for another reason. So, with that brief introduction in mind, let’s consider the last of the Mistakes Good Parents Make through the lens of choice theory.
Why Fulfill Your Own Dreams, When Your Kids Can Do It For You?
Roger Pope is livid as he leaves the school gymnasium and heads to the parking lot. Although his son played in the game that just finished, he wasn’t a starter. And when he was on the court his talents were not really featured as they should have been. Mr. Pope will be confronting the coach tomorrow about that. Peter Bolls is sensing his daughter’s enthusiasm to become a doctor is faltering and he feels his frustration rising. He wants to straighten her thinking out — now! There’s no way she is going to change her major and become a . . . a teacher, of all things. As Marjorie Kent dropped her daughter off at school this morning, and watched her connect with a few of her friends as they all walked up the steps and into the main building, she wondered how popular her daughter was and about how good her grades were compared to others. She seemed to be accepted by the other students and respected by the school staff, but maybe not. Kids could be so fickle. Marjorie decided then and there to have a party at their house this coming weekend and have a lot of the kids over. Couldn’t hurt, she thought. Roger, Peter, and Marjorie all have something in common–their own needs are being met through the achievements and status of their children.
Alfie Kohn wrote about such parents in Only for My Kid, an article published in Kappan in 1998. Kohn cited cases in which schools that were attempting to create a curriculum in which all students could succeed were taken to task by parents whose kids were already successful. These parents actually undermined progressive reform efforts to teach more students effectively. When school officials tried to talk with these parents about specific learning strategies the parents expressed little interest or declined to listen at all. The only thing that mattered to them was that the school program continued to create pedestals on which their own child could stand and that would differentiate him/her from the others. Kohn referred to these parents as BIRG parents, using an acronym I have never forgotten and that seems to capture the essence of #7. BIRG stands for Basking in Reflected Glory. And as much as I want to point a condemning finger at the icky parents in Kohn’s article, the acronym also challenges me to self-evaluate the extent to which I may BIRGing.
BIRG stands for Basking in Reflected Glory.
It is the basic need for power and achievement that fuels a parent’s basking in the glory of his child. If our child is famous–it fulfills our desire for fame; if he or she is talented–others will think their talent came from us; if he or she has their act together–it is a reflection on our superior parenting. Much is at stake in this process. Usually, parent and child can survive this sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant manipulation. Sometimes, though, as depicted in the movie, Dead Poets’ Society, the result can be catastrophic.
BIRGing is really about exploitation. We want to gain an advantage, improve our own reputations, or increase our status through the accomplishments of our son or daughter. Our need for this status drives us to manipulate the behavior of the child whose fame train we are riding. It’s not only parents who BIRG. Teachers and even schools can BIRG, too. We proclaim and advertise our elite students’ skills and successes in the hope that others will want to go to our fantastic school as well. Look how good Megan is as a musician. She goes to our school! Or look at what an athlete Stephan is. He is one of our students! Whether at home or at school, kids pick up on this manipulation and they resent it. They don’t always understand what is going on, especially if they are young children, but they don’t like how it feels.
I don’t want to convey that parents can’t have hopes and dreams for their children, and it doesn’t mean they can’t try to influence their children in the direction of those dreams. The danger lies in parents ignoring or bulldozing the dreams of their children and replacing them with their own. Doing this for our own selfish reasons, so that our personal needs are the priority, only makes it worse. One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is to help him or her discover their true identity and enable them to achieve their dreams. It is an unselfish act to do this, a legacy-creating act whose ripples will be felt for generations to come.
One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is to help him or her discover their true identity and enable them to achieve their dreams.