Mummy's little darlings
You want to push them to achieve their potential, but where do you draw the line? By Claire Seeber
Sunday 29 November 1998
The other day, I met a little girl called Shirley (her name should give you a clue). Shirley has everything, including her own pushy parent. In her house in Chelsea she practices ballet and tap in her own dance studio, where giant pictures of herself beam down on her shuffle ball change. Her wealthy parents buy her things that other kids only dream of, and she's been signed up for her first nose-job already. Recently she tired of her horse and demanded a more street credible BMX instead. In-line skates lie discarded in the hallway while gleaming tennis rackets are propped by the coat-stand. Shirley senior, a failed disco diva, talks of her daughter in terms so nauseous other children would cringe. She is quite convinced that she is raising the next Julia Roberts. She sees not one single fault in her child and so her daughter is imbued with such self-importance that it seems she cannot fail. Her confidence abounds as her parents buy their way through every little girl's dream.
Shirley's tale may yet end like Posh Spice's - the millionaire's daughter who fantasised of being an actress, Victoria Adams goes to prove that money and parental support can help buy you fame, if not talent. Your downfall may be that no one likes you because your parents provide you with too much, including a better chance than those who can't afford dance or elocution lessons. Posh Spice talks of having no school friends, because she "worked so hard". I wonder if that is the real reason.
But however nauseating, I felt a flicker of envy as I saw such total belief shine in Shirley's mother's eyes. Monica Potter, star of Martha meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence, talked recently of her proud father, "He picked me up when I was little and said `You're going to be a film- star', so that's what I became." Oh for such faith - how can these children fail?
My parents expected much of me but were realists and did not push me unduly. Like so many little girls I dreamt of fame and glory, picturing myself centre-stage. I would declare that I had no ambition other than to be a world-famous actress. This was a hideous choice in my parent's eyes. In truth, I didn't have the drive it takes to make it big, but I have sometimes wondered if it was because my parents never believed deep down I had it in me.
Parents often try to re-live their own lives through their kids. Inside every pushy parent there must be a failed actress, a frustrated lawyer, a ballet dancer with bow legs. As psychologist Jean Civil points out, it is all too easy to push your child into something because you didn't have it yourself. "Some parents want to live again through their children, and all too often their motivation for their kids to succeed is the reflected glory. But you must remember you should be responsible toward your child, not for them. Cut the umbilical cord and let them make their own choices."
At 15, playing the lead in the school play, I swept into the auditorium at the interval to soak up praise. My father greeted me instead with hearty criticism. He honestly thought he was being helpful, yet his words were indelibly etched on my mind for years. As Jean Civil says, we all need compliments: "We grow with praise, and shrivel with criticism." But there is a fine line between a proud parent and one too pushy - a child needs praise, but with no criticism the praise has little value. Good parenting is about striking a balance.
Hollywood is riddled with children who are the product of that balance being wrong. Drew Barrymore, star of ET at age eight, was robbed of her childhood as her mother let her do as she pleased. Drew defined precociousness, developing a cocaine habit by the age of 12. Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin was so devastated by his pushy and avaricious parents he ended up divorcing them. River Phoenix's parents called their children ridiculous names and peddled them round Hollywood - there is no need to point out what tragedy befell that family.
Undoubtedly, inside the head of many a pushy parent rings the sound of the infant cash register. Michael and Jenny were so hard-up that they considered sending their beautiful kids out as child models. In an attack of remorse, they decided they would prefer to give their kids the choice. The flipside to this are children like Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall's 14- year-old daughter Elizabeth, who is already, famously, working as a model. If she was any other 14-year-old, her parents would be labelled pushy, but their alleged recent division over allowing her shows they had no need to push. Elizabeth was just lucky to have the choice.
Parents less fortunate than the Jaggers will sweat blood and tears to push their kids forward. Posh Spice's stablemate Emma Bunton had parents who slaved night and day to put her through stage school. Most pushy showbiz parents are not rich - their lives are tough and they fight hard to give their kids something special, an opportunity to climb high. Carolyn Douglas, family therapist and founder of Exploring Parenthood, warns: "Keep in touch with yourself so you know whether you're pushing for yourself or your child. If a parent is too aspirant, the child has no chance to find their own talents." And beware the parent who cuts their child off from their peers. If the child is pushed too hard, she will end up like genius Ruth Lawrence, with a First from Oxford at 13 and only her middle-aged father for friendship.
Ambitious parents aren't confined to the realms of showbusiness. Dominic, now a wine-merchant, was expected to excel academically, and was sent, like his family before him, to a renowned public school. Every parental pressure was on him to succeed and his future was mapped out for him. Unfortunately, during his last year at school, he decided magic mushrooms were far more interesting than classical civilisation, and the got caught in a girl's bedroom. During his escape he totalled his mother's car and was only saved from a drink-driving sentence by an overly diligent housemaster. His parents had unwittingly pushed him right off the straight and narrow, and only recently, through choice, did he climb back on after years of rebellion.
At 17 Lorna contemplated suicide because she failed her A-levels and couldn't bear to tell her exacting parents. She is overwhelmed with relief now that she didn't succeed, but it is a real danger. There are no official teen suicide figures reflecting the pressure of exams, but certainly attempted suicide amongst children is on the rise. Jean Civil suggests that at stressful times such as exams and auditions, parents should avoid platitudes like "Do your best" - if the child then fails, they will feel their best is worthless. Instead, give positive encouragements like "go in and enjoy it".
My good friend Joanna has a wonderfully unpushy mum and dad. When I met them, I thought they were particularly cool, drinking until the early hours and crooning to their guitar. Joanna doesn't see it like that. "When I was revising for my exams upstairs they were having parties downstairs and calling me to drink with them. I wanted them to push me academically but they were too laid back." Joanna pushed herself instead and did very well. The result is her fierce independence - a quality the children of these pushy parents don't often possess.
The problem may be that the parents of today are only yesterday's children grown a bit older. Emma had a baby recently - my god daughter. "The best gift you can give a child is confidence," she cooed, gazing adoringly at her first-born. She is probably right, but it's a dilemma, finding the happy medium between an over-confident child and one eternally resentful because they can never do enough to please their parents. Without being trite, a child needs the chance to be her or himself. Kahil Gibran's The Prophet sums it up:
Your children are not your children...
though they are with you yet they belong not to you...
you may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
Exploring Parenthood - parental advice line (not for emergencies): 0171 221 6681.
DON'T PUSH THEM OVER THE EDGE
Don't make your children do things because you didn't get the chance or have the ability.
Never use your child to compete with your peers.
Don't push your child for financial gain.
Praise with boundaries - constant praise and no criticism has no real value.
Very successful children can be emotionally traumatised - make sure they don't miss out on a social life with their peers
Don't make your children so confident that they can't deal with failure - you will be setting them up for a fall
If you never praise, your child won't be able to reach his or her full potential.
Long after his career in English football has ended, Emile Heskey's impotency in front of goal remains an object of ridicule.
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