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November 16th, 2009 by Dr. Phil

Supportive Parent or Pushy Parent?

soccer1We had a really interesting response to our show about parents who seem to be way over-involved in their kids’ goals and dreams, and who sometimes push their kids toward something that they may want a lot more than their kids do.  Several of you wrote to ask how Robin and I raised our sons. How much did we push them to succeed when they were younger? And when did we pull back and say, “It’s time to let them make their own way”?

It’s tough to know where the line is, even when you spend your whole life in the world of human functioning. Seems you lose a little — actually a lot — of objectivity when it is your relationship with your own kids that you are assessing and managing!  As parents, we all want to teach our children to be responsible, yet we also want them to be self-motivated. It really bugs me when I see parents pushing their kids toward their wants and living vicariously through them. It is sad for both parent and child. I’ll give Robin and me credit and say that I think we actually did dodge those bullets.

Our rule was always: If you start, then you finish. It was up to the boys if they wanted to play baseball, do martial arts, sign up for a series of piano lessons or join a club. But if they signed up for a season or a class, they had to finish it.  If they didn’t want to go for a second round, that was up to them.  What’s more, they were taught that what they were getting to do was a privilege, and they only got to do that activity if they maintained good grades and good overall conduct.

For some reason, I have always had a lot of drive and ambition, maybe too much! (Robin made me put that last bit in.) And, I admit, there were times while raising Jay and Jordan when I would look at one of them and think, ‘Come on, kid. Get some fire in your belly!’  Still, while we were always there to encourage our kids to be successful, we left it up to them to make their own choices.  Robin and I didn’t push Jay and Jordan into doing any particular activity just because it interested one of us. In fact, we went the other way. Our attitude was to expose them to a variety of activities, and then step back and see which one, if any, interested them.

I think the strategy was a reaction to my own childhood. My dad, for a variety of reasons, never once took me hunting, fishing or camping. Nor did he expose me to such things as the arts.  These activities simply weren’t things that interested him.  He wasn’t interested, so I wasn’t exposed.

Because of that experience, or lack thereof, I consciously decided to get out of my comfort zone and offer a broader selection to my boys.  For me, it made more sense to introduce them to a smorgasbord of activities and then let them choose. Why should I let my particular life experiences, or non-experiences, become their legacy? Why should I force them to excel in just one single activity because it’s something that interests me?

And so, although I had no musical skills or experiences, I made sure they had opportunities to see if they liked piano, guitar or singing. I also made sure they were exposed to hunting, fishing and camping. Hey, it wasn’t easy! I went and bought a tent, and it took me hours (a lot of hours) to get it set up.  I learned the hard way to put the tent up on really flat ground, because we ended up getting in our sleeping bags and promptly rolling down a hill. (Hey, it looked flat when we walked up!)

And that wasn’t all. Robin and I took them to everything from museums to car races. We let them see opera, Shakespearian plays and all kinds of team sports.  Although I did steer them away from certain things that I thought were just too dangerous — like motorcycle riding. I had cheated death too many times growing up on a motorcycle that was ridden in traffic! But I did let them try adventure sports, such as scuba diving.

It did seem that because Jay and Jordan knew they had to earn the privilege of playing a sport or participating in some extracurricular activity, they definitely valued it more.  They knew they had worked to get the privilege, so they felt like they better enjoy it, or all that work would not have been worth it.

A Young Jay and Jordan McGrawAnyway, looking back, it’s interesting to see what stuck and what didn’t. While I never held a fishing pole until well into my twenties, Jay developed a huge love for fishing, and while I never owned a musical instrument, Jordan developed a huge love for music, especially performing and songwriting.

Interestingly, the one great passion of mine that I exposed them to — tennis — didn’t interest either of them in the slightest. But that is just fine. It’s their life and their choice, not mine. I have watched far too many stage mothers push their unhappy daughters to be beauty queens, or cheerleaders or dance stars. I coached basketball for 14 years at the YMCA, and I watched too many dads standing in gymnasiums, screaming at their distraught kids to make a basket when the poor kid could barely hit the ground with the basketball, let alone get off a shot.  The results were never good.

In any event, I guess our parenting philosophy has worked, at least so far, as both boys have found many passions that make them happy to get up every morning.  As I write this, Jay is pheasant hunting in South Dakota with his father-in-law, and Jordan is in the studio recording the music he loves. I’ll take that outcome! I know I made a million mistakes along the way, as we all do, but they are happy. And isn’t that one of the big things in life — finding something to do that you love?

How about you?  Do you think you have pushed your kids too much? Not enough?  Do you have a different strategy than mine?  I’d love to hear from you on this one!

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54 Responses to “Supportive Parent or Pushy Parent?”

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  3. caroline says:

    hi there dr phil, i really enjoyed reading your blog on pushy parenting, i am so impressed that i have the same idea as yourselve i let my daughter 11years old join whatever she wants but has to finish the term, she has left somethings but has kept a lot on too, 2nd rule is when i buy the uniform she has to stay for a year she makes that choice and thankfully she sticks to her side of the bargain. My other daughter 5 years old seems to be following the same road as her sister so both have lots of hobbies that they love. really enjoy your show have to say i love the way you say it has it is, wish i lived nearer would love to go to one of you shows. keep up the good work.

  4. Kyle says:

    Thank you for your insights Dr. Phil. My father was never happy with what I wanted to do. I always had the distinct feeling that he was really uncomfortable with the activities I enjoyed because they were so different from what he liked. I felt like he could have cared less about anything I did and I’m not sure he knew how to support what I really loved doing. In the end his inability to support my dreams ended creating a huge distance between us.

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