Joanna Moorhead: Want your children to get on? Then just do your own thing

Pushy parents' efforts come to nothing once adolescence strikes

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Pushy parenting, says Kirsty Young, is "the real modern disease". Parents today, she commented last week, "are preoccupied with children as an extension of their own success".

And what seems certain, whether you defend or deride it, is that pushy parenting seems to be here to stay. As Young pointed out, it's now widespread and universal, with parents elbowing one another out of the way to snaffle up the latest Baby Einstein toys before racing off to enrol their offspring in Kumon maths, Mandarin, violin and drama classes.

Tutoring is one of the few growth sectors of the recession-hit economy, as worried mums and dads seek to supplement kids' school learning with extracurricular cramming – and even when it should all be over, and teenagers are finally off at university, academics report a dramatic increase in so-called "helicopter parents". They're the ones who simply don't know when to call it a day, and are still hovering around making sure Junior is at his lectures, and on track for a first.

Young's comments have unleashed an avalanche of emotional feelings. Some think the TV presenter is right to be on the attack, believing, as she does, that a lot of pushy-parent behaviour is a thinly disguised attempt to right what's not gone right in their own lives, or a need to live vicariously through their kids. Others say it's all very well for a privileged mum such as Young, married to a millionaire restaurateur, to eschew pushiness: others – with fewer material advantages – have to work a lot harder to get their youngsters to anywhere near where Young's daughters are on the ladder of life's advantages.

Yet another line is that pushy parenting is instinctive in all of us who have kids, and anyone who claims to be above it is simply denying a basic human need: after all, what more aspirational deed can any of us do, as human beings, than have a child? They're our individual stake in the next generation, and the nearest any of us get to immortality. We're wired to care about how they grow up, how well they do, and how good the opportunities are for them, because they're the biggest investment it's possible for any of us to make.

But amid all the furore, one point has been overlooked – probably because it's the one none of us parents wants to believe is true. The fact is – and as a mother of four children ranging in age from seven to 17, I'm more and more aware of this – that we have far less influence on our children than we like to think. In essence, whether pushy parenting is or isn't a good idea isn't the point: the real point is, it doesn't work.

Why so? Well, first because just as our instinct in life is to improve our kids' lot, their instinct (and believe me, this only gets stronger the older they are) is to do their own thing. So, not just despite but precisely because you've spent decades investing time and energy in your child's Japanese/ violin/fencing classes, these will almost certainly be the first casualties of the cataclysm known as adolescence, about which you know so little as a pushy parent with a five- or eight-year-old (and it's one of the mysteries of life how the teenage years turn out to be a totally different experience from the other side of the fence, so the fact that you went through them yourself will turn out to be no advantage whatsoever as the full horror of your child's entry into this nightmarish stage rolls out).

Anyway, the bottom line is that, in the long run, the more you hold things to be important and significant and – worst of all – improving, the less they will care about them. Nonchalance, in fact, is the most powerful but woefully the most undiscovered weapon of the aspirational parent. Care less, and you dramatically improve the chances of them caring more. One of my daughters has turned out to be rather talented at playing the piano – but from her earliest lessons, I swore blind I would never utter the words: "It's time you did your piano practice, Elinor." It always seemed to me that if she was learning the piano for herself, rather than for me or for someone else, she would enjoy it more, value it more, and work harder at it. And so it has turned out – and the only thing I have always said to her, because it is entirely true, is that I love to hear her playing.

But the rejection of parents' ambitions is only one factor in the mix. Another, oft-ignored, is quite simply this: our children are not mini-versions of us, their parents, waiting to be wound up and set off across the landscape of life like clockwork penguins. My kids aren't me and they're not their father: nor are they some half-and-half version of him and me. They're entirely, absolutely, 100 per cent individuals, with their own unique set of interests and talents and ambitions, moulded by a set of experiences and events that is also unique to them (even kids from the same family have different experiences due to birth order, changing parental circumstances, separate friendships and so on). Our children are entirely different from us – and realising that is one of the most unexpected, and interesting, aspects of childrearing. My Christmas present this year from Rosie, my eldest daughter, was a painting of her and her three sisters. She'd done it with acrylic paint on canvas: I'm not going to tell you it's as good as a professional piece of work, because it isn't, but it's impressively done and she's captured the essence of herself and all three of her sisters remarkably well. But where does this painting skill come from? Certainly not me or my husband, since we barely know one end of a paintbrush from the other – Rosie's interest in painting comes from the mix that is Rosie, and isn't much to do with Gary or me at all.

Nor is it the result of any pushiness on our part – in fact I wonder whether she'd have kept up her interest in painting if we'd enrolled her in art classes. I have, I must admit, tried half-heartedly, once or twice, over the years, to get her to sign up for a course at a local art school – but she's given it the thumbs-down, and I can now see she was right to have done that. Children value the things they invest in, and organise, themselves – if it comes ready-made, organised by their mum or dad and pushed on them by them, it's inevitably less valuable, less interesting, and less likely to be followed through.

What's more, all around us are examples of how the same parenting techniques produce wildly different results. My parents were the least pushy parents imaginable: I don't remember them ever attending a parent-teacher conference, and on my way to collect my (politics) degree my father enquired politely whether I'd enjoyed studying history for three years (it wasn't that he didn't care – he just wasn't hugely interested; and why should he have been, since it was my life and not his?). Of four of us, I'm a London journalist; my sister is an editor who lives and works in Fiji; one of my brothers is a Yorkshire bus driver; and the other has just received his PhD from Lancaster University. Same parents, same lack of pushiness; four different paths. What if we had been pushed? Who knows: but friends who had pushier parents (as almost all of them did) have tended, like me and my siblings, to have meandered through a similar hotch-potch of wildly different routes.

Far better than pushiness, in my view, is role-modelling: instead of pushing from behind, you lead from in front. It's a lot more energy-efficient, for starters; a lot less frustrating (for you) and a lot less intense (for them). Put simply, leading from in front is all about enjoying your own life as an adult, using your talents, and working out solutions to problems in a healthy and productive way. Include your kids in your life and in your difficulties too (and show them how you work things out); instead of focusing on what they should be doing, focus on what you yourself are doing. We're all a lot better at working out what others should be doing than in putting our own houses in order, and that's every bit as true of our relationships with our kids as it's true of our relationships with anyone else.

But a word of warning: focusing on your own life and achievements/joys/ ambitions in a healthy, role-modelling way is all well and good, but don't expect to get any feedback from your kids whatsoever that they know, care, or are even registering what's going on in your life. For the past three years, I've been working on a project that, while dear to my heart, is often frustrating, difficult, and poorly paid. It takes me on a lot of trips away from home, and it's been panned by all four of my daughters, who see it as a pretty negative turn of events.

A few weeks ago, however, Rosie sent off her university application, and after a lot of nagging she allowed me to read her personal statement. "I got interested in art history," she wrote, "because my mum became a part-time art curator after she discovered a connection with a Surrealist artist, and decided she wanted to help her become better known." "Wow!" I said. "That's really wonderful. I had no idea that what I was doing had made such a difference to your plans."

And Rosie just grunted – because let's face it, no kid wants their parent to ever, ever think they're getting anything right, do they?

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