Expectations for a success that's not about trophies

April 08, 2001|By Susan Reimer

A friend sent along this thought: "Expectations are resentments in the making," and her message did what it was supposed to do -- it made me think. She was talking about a parent's expectations and the resentments they might engender in a child. My first reaction was, "Of course the kids are resentful. They have this center-of-the-universe thing going on, and the only thing they want to hear from us is our applause."

I thought, I said to her, that we were supposed to have expectations -- high ones at that, and those expectations would form the trellis to which they would cling as they grow.

"We expect you to be honest, kind, to work hard in school, to respect the environment.

"We expect you to hang up the towels and empty the dishwasher, and to contribute to the common good."

Expect, expect. We expect our expectations to be their conscience.

But sometimes parents go too far. We write a script for success. That is when we reap the whirlwind of resentment.

"I was in England recently, and one looks in vain for an auto with a decal in the back window that says 'Oxford.' "

That is Josiah Bunting speaking. He is superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute and the former headmaster at the prestigious Lawrenceville boarding school near Princeton, N.J.

He is a Rhodes Scholar, a retired general and the author of several books, including the just-released "All Loves Excelling."

It describes the tragic results of unrelenting parental ambition on a bright and sensitive young girl. Though this fictional story is extreme, Bunting called upon his experiences with ambitious parents to write it.

"In the United States, the ambitions we have for our children take the form of their achieving recognized trophies," he said from VMI.

"Club memberships, times in racing events, admission to well-known universities. These trophies gratify the ambitions of the parents, but we also believe our children can use them as engines to further their own success."

No longer do we hope that our children will grow up to be good people, settled and happy, but rather that they will attain a set of recognizable trophies.

"And that their satisfaction will come from that," he said.

"It is like the light at the end of the dock in 'The Great Gatsby,' this American pursuit of the constantly receding dream.

"We can't quite express what that dream is, so we will give it a name: attendance at a prestigious university."

This impulse comes from a good place; we want the best for our children. But it is our definition of "best." We think our children are too young to know what they need.

"We are fearful, and we are looking to solidify our children's futures, to make them more secure, by connecting them to things that look powerful, enduring and lasting," Bunting said. "What could more powerful, enduring and lasting than Harvard?"

Add to this burdensome agenda the basic miscommunication between parent and child.

We say, "We want you to work hard." But they hear, "We will love you more if you succeed."

They are not hearing what we think we are saying -- if they are listening to us at all -- but they might understand if we can show them what we mean.

Bunting suggests that rather than lecture our children with our formula for a successful and happy life, we extol the examples set by people who are fulfilled, happy, centered and honorable, but who are not president, a professional athlete or making a killing on an Internet start-up.

"Point out to your children people who make a lifelong commitment to something, who take obvious pleasure in doing things well which aren't recognized."

In other words, people who are the picture of success.

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