Greg (thrilled): Joshie said he loves Maths!!!
(Three year old toddles in.)
Me: What do you love?
Joshie: I love mash.
Parents want two things for their kids – and, as frequently happens, these things contradict each other. They know their kids are separate from them and must move towards eventual autonomy, but they also can’t help seeing their children as extensions of themselves. It’s tricky – you’ve got this small person who looks like you, a mini-me, who has also picked up many of your mannerisms. How tempting it is to fall into the trap of seeing this person as you, and projecting your ambitions onto your child.
Perhaps one counter-intuitive way of separating yourself from your kid is to stop praising your child so much. Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst who describes some encounters he has with patients in his book, The Examined Life. He says:
“Now, wherever there are small children – at the local playground, at Starbucks and at nursery school – you will hear the background music of praise: ‘Good boy,’ ‘Good girl,’ ‘You’re the best’. Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signalling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have – but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self.”
Without so much meaningless praise, a child’s real ambition and self may emerge more smoothly. But don’t take the ‘no praise thing’ as far as the father of Henry Rider Haggard, the author of King Solomon’s Mines:
“As a child Henry Rider Haggard was believed to be stupid: his father told him he was destined to become a greengrocer. The books aren’t proof that he wasn’t stupid; but they are proof that he was dogged and canny, with a strange and lurid imagination. Haggard’s father lived long enough to see his son become wealthier than he was and the author of a 15-volume series which ran for forty years…” (London Review of Books, April 2014)
One can’t help seeing the flinching man as Haggard’s father and the rampaging elephant as Haggard himself, although those might just be my projections.