6 Ways to Stop Living Vicariously Through Your Kids
What Is Living Vicariously Through Your Kids?
Living vicariously through our children is a huge issue today, and my family is no exception. There is so much more I could say—and I may very well return to this topic again—but I hope my journey serves as a help to you in building a positive legacy for your family.
Vicarious: A Definition
(The most relevant definition for the purposes of this post)
Vicarious – felt or enjoyed through imagined participation in the experience of others: a vicarious thrill. (Source: dictionary.com)
How It Happens
Most of us don’t go there intentionally. We never intended to be the parent who questions every call the umpire makes or every move the coach makes. We weren’t going to be the one who assumed the teacher was at fault for a bad grade. We weren’t going to cry politics when our kid didn’t get the part or get the solo or make the team. We were going to let our kids fight their own battles, not take up their causes.
No, we were never going to be THAT parent, but our emotions slowly intertwined with those of our children. (Okay, sometimes not so slowly, but I’m giving us the benefit of the doubt). Oh, we can rationalize it away with the best of them, but if we are honest with ourselves, we have let it happen. We have become the parent living vicariously through his or her children. How did this happen?
I get it. As a former coach and teacher, I was probably more intent than most not to be THAT parent. Older Brother is the one of my three kids that I struggle with in this area more than the other two. He and I started going to games together when he was five. Early on as a player, he had coaches who gave good instruction and cared a great deal about the kids, too. Somewhere along the way, that wasn’t the case any more. I could feel my temperature rising as he got faulty instruction or as he was simply ignored. I had to keep my role as a parent before me, though, and try to guide him through the tough spots rather than get emotionally caught up in them myself. Not always easy!
I also found that as Older Brother enjoyed some success at baseball, I felt a sense of accomplishment, too. True, I have taught him much of what he knows about the game, but there is an often-indistinguishable line between joy over your kid’s success and a vindication of your own parenting prowess. I feel myself closer to the line than I would like sometimes (which usually means that I have already crossed it).
There is no doubt that many parents are living vicariously through their children. As a matter of fact, would somebody please tell me that I am not the only trying to avoid living vicariously through my kids!!! Here is some advice–lessons often learned the hard way–that I would offer to others who struggle against the whole living vicariously thing even as I try to follow it myself.
6 Ways to Stop Living Vicariously Through Your Kids
1. Deal with your own failures and shortcomings. Come to grips with where you weren’t all you expected to be and get over it. You didn’t make the team; don’t blame. You didn’t get into the college of your choice; move on. Sometimes, disappointment happens and we can’t go back and change it and make it better. Don’t take that out on your kid by riding him/her to do what you couldn’t.
Unfortunately, we are less equipped than ever to help our kids deal with their own disappointments. You probably grew up, as I did, in an era when every kid DID NOT get a trophy for simply participating. Bless our hearts. Whoever made up that “every child is a winner” crap? (That’s as strong a language as I will use on or off this blog, but whoever came up with that idea just didn’t think it through to its logical conclusion: a bunch of “winners” who had never actually earned anything…or learned to own mistakes and deal with disappointment and overcome.)
2. Work on your own goals. Do your main goals in life revolve around your child’s accomplishments? Do you realize how that robs your child of the great gift of unconditional love? Maybe you had parents who parented this way, too, but it’s time to break the cycle. Have your own goals. Let your child watch you strive, fall short, get up, try again, succeed—what an example for junior to follow.
Oh, and I should mention that just because your six-year-old just LOVES to do some activity, don’t bombard them with it. When I was coaching high school baseball, I had well-meaning parents asking me about drills they should be doing with their little fellas because they just LOVED baseball. I told them to just teach their kids to have fun, but they pressed. So I asked them the chocolate questions: Does your kid like chocolate? The answer was always yes. Are you going to give them a pound of chocolate a day? The answer was always no. Why? The answer was always because it wasn’t good for them. Neither is too much baseball. Or any other activity at such a young age. Make it your goal to teach your kid to be well-balanced and have fun.
3. Find a hobby that you can learn together. If you and your child start from ground zero with a new interest, you will have fewer expectations and can just enjoy the time that you are able to spend together. If there is stress from the strain of your trying to avoid vicarious living through your child, this will help ease it.
When Older Brother was about nine years old, I told him to pick a hobby, one not associated with sports. I told him I would help him with it, even if I didn’t know how to to it myself. He responded, “Dad, I think I’d like to learn to fish.” I had fished some as a kid and as a college student, but I hadn’t picked up a fishing rod in years.
A friend blessed us with the opportunity to fish a real honey hole, and Older Brother was…wait for it…hooked. We have built many memories around fishing over the last eight years. We’re still competitive as we are in most everything, even with fishing (first fish, biggest fish most fish). However, it’s something we can enjoy together stress-free. We’ve even convinced my dad to start fishing again, and we have the priceless photo above as a result.
4. Let your children have interests in which you don’t involve yourself. (And have some interests that they don’t share.) You don’t have to have your hands in every part of their lives. Let them have an escape into some healthy interests of their own.
For example, Older Brother plays fantasy football and real basketball with his friends and goes fishing without me much of the time now. That’s a good thing since he’ll be heading off to college next year. He’ll be doing most everything without me them. (I have no desire to live vicariously through his anatomy and physiology class.)
5. Focus more on WHO your kids are becoming much more than WHAT they are accomplishing. If you focus on what they are accomplishing, that’s fine when they succeed. But when they fail…you fail. And it’s no fun when two losers ride home together still stewing over some disappointment. (Hypothetically speaking, of course.)
I tell Older Brother constantly that he is one injury away from his baseball career being over. I’m no Negative Nancy, but that is a possibility that needs to be considered by parents. What happens when the dream is over? What happens when the goal can no longer be reached? What kind of person will your kid be then? What kind of person will you be? Will the cycle of living vicariously roll over to another generation?
Character transcends both success and disappointment. Work on that. It’ll be beneficial for the both of you.
6. When you brag about your child (and you will), brag about their character more than their results. Sure, you’re glad they won the game, reached the milestone, received the award. Is your happiness because they accomplished the thing or just because they’re happy? They’re listening sometimes when you brag on them, you know. What they hear that you’re proud of sends a message. Brag about the transcendent things.
The End of the Day
I need to re-read this post myself…often. I have done well at times just being a dad who supports his kids, but I have also been forced by my conscience to call a teenaged umpire to ask forgiveness for being a jerk. At the end of the day, I have to remember that this whole parenting gig is not about me but about passing a legacy of character and integrity, of hard work and godly responses to what life throws at us. So that they will one day do the same.
Thanks for reading this longer-than-intended post. I hope it helps you.
Al Ainsworth is the author of six books:
About Al Ainsworth
Al Ainsworth is a values storyteller. He works with individuals, businesses, churches, and other organizations to pass along their values through the stories they tell…and re-tell. Al is the author of Lines in the Gravel (and 52 Other Re-Told Childhood Tales), Stories from the Roller Coaster (of a Faith Life), and Coach Dave: Season One. Subscribe to his email list for more values storying.