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Honoring Your Child's Unique Gifts:
Keeping Your Dreams for Your Child in Check

By Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal

Sometimes parents are sure about the path that their kids must take, and they let the kids know it. When we do this, we often set our kids up for failure. Trying to help those we love most in the world to succeed, we actually ferment rebellion in them or doom them to failure. Take a look at your household and see if any of the following situations apply.

A friend once told me of an encounter with the man who was screaming at his 14-year old, unaware that she was just five feet away and heard everything. My friend was too polite to tell him that, if we teach our children over and over again that they are substandard, we will get results the very opposite from those we want. Indeed, we will sap our child's will, and it'll be tough for them ever to escape the screaming voice inside their head.

In this situation, it turned out this gentleman himself had been a big shot in high school. Though his son was kind, respectful, and a very good student, he was not in the super popular in-crowd, and the dad was afraid he would miss out on the fun he himself had had.

I don't know any pressure that is so overwhelming in school. If you aren't good at football or basketball or soccer, you can be the subject of teasing, even harassment. Naturally, parents and coaches want the child to succeed in sports. Sports can even be the door that opens to scholarships and a bright career future.

I remember the day when the soccer scouts, seeing my son in the city tryouts, tried to get him on a professional team. He was 12 and very tall. Being on this team meant large crowds and glory; but it also meant practicing every afternoon for three hours and traveling to matches three weekends a month. More than that, it meant playing aggressively, even sometimes violently-in other words, it meant giving up the rest of childhood. A lot of pressure was applied to get this boy who was still wandering in the hills searching for finches and orioles to go for broke in sports; but he loved soccer only for enjoyment, not for competition. Unwilling to give up fun for glory, he told the coaches and scouts to look somewhere else for the next Pele.

If the parent spies an area where their boy or girl shows great promise, sometimes they won't let them forget about it. An extreme example of this takes place in the movie "The Red Violin," where the boy Kaspar, who has a heart ailment, is recognized as a child violin prodigy and forced to perform by his foster father-whose own fame will be made if the boy succeeds. When his chance to perform before the king finally comes, Kaspar begins his outstanding violin playing and promptly falls over, dead from a heart attack. This merely dramatizes what we all know: talented children, endlessly pressured by their parents, may seem quite strong and self-assured; but within them, the natural urge to have fun and play is being squashed. They substitute praise from the outside for their deepest feelings and needs, and something quintessentially human in them is snuffed out.

What about when mom or dad didn't get the grades to get into a good school? Well, darned if their kids are going to fail to do so. They will get where the parents didn't even if they have to force them there! To give an example, when I was growing up, my friend Bill was a slow moving, very likable guy who did not much care about sports. His dad very much regretted he had not gone to the right college. I couldn't count the times I was over and heard his dad screaming, "Bill, you have to get good grades and get into Stanford," which was where he himself had been rejected. In other words, Bill was supposed to take care of his father's unfulfilled need, rather than the other way around. He was going to make up for the lack and make his father feel good again.

As he grew up, Bill got pretty sick of hearing about Stanford. But some kids operate from a sense of independence and security and miraculously are able to act on it. Turning his deep sensitivity to the deaths of so many in Vietnam, Bill dropped out of school in 1968 and joined the famous antiwar demonstrations at the Democratic convention in Chicago, which some say was what turned the tide in America against that war. Bill, who today tends an orchard in eastern Washington, found his own path through his deep convictions to fulfillment and inner peace. His dad, however, died believing his son was a failure. It all makes me think how much richer a life all of us parents can have if we see our boy or girl not for what we hope they will achieve, but for the person they truly are at any given time.

Sometimes parents are sure just who they want their girl or boy to date and their own preferences limit their kid to their own predilections. Let me once again give an extreme example of what could be lost if the kid doesn't ask her own questions. There was a day when I was growing up that my teenaged sister came home and dropped a bombshell. She announced she was marrying her hippie boyfriend. "Not on your life," my dad the business professor said. "That bearded, lazy so-and-so will never amount to a thing." Only that lazy so-and-so was not so lazy when he jammed with his guitar. I could listen to the skillful finger picking and the soulful bard's voice for hours. However, Dad wanted someone who could make it in the financial world; this "nobody" didn't seem to care a fig about money.

But Dad had to eat his words, though, after the first album sold out and the band became wildly popular. My new brother-in-law's name was Jerry Garcia. It took Dad decades to admit my sister had married one of the great rock legends of the 20th century, and that if she had bowed to his demands, she might have missed out on history.

Thus, if we can stop trying to use our children as surrogate selves, who will be what we should or could have been, or spoiling them so that they can enjoy what we couldn't have-- and if we can instead nourish and respect them as the people they really are, the results can be miraculous.

Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran’s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal is an international workshop leader in passage meditation and in courses for those looking for end of life spiritual care and for the spiritual step component of twelve step programs. Visit Stephen’s work at www.directawakenings.com.

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