Give your child space to develop his own identity

I have discovered as a counsellor working with families with young children that parents come to parenting with many different expectations of what their child will be like, even before the baby is conceived.

Dr Newman warns that unrealistic expectations can have a damaging effect, reducing the child to an extension of its parents without the space to grow its own unique identity.


Brave New Life

Act 1 Scene 1
A laboratory in Sydney city, 2050

The drama takes place in a huge, gleaming glass building. On ground level in an open lab, hundreds of white-coated technicians are poring over glass test tubes. On the floor above, hundreds of couples wait anxiously to have the fertilised egg of their chosen sex implanted. Camera pans to the laboratory head sitting frowning at a computer screen. He bangs down his fist and shouts: Professor: Why aren’t these people ever happy! They said they wanted a boy, I gave them a boy, now they want compensation because he hates soccer! What is the world coming to?

This scene, though fictional as yet, may not be that far away. An article in the Observer newspaper in the UK reported that a company is offering British families a discreet service for sex selection where the family already has one child or two children of the same sex. Sperm samples are taken, frozen, shipped to the US and sperm are sorted into Y and X chromosomes by laser. The correct sperm are shipped back and implanted. A brave new life indeed.

Wanting a child of a certain sex is nothing new to human nature. Both men and women have consumed certain foods, had sex in different positions and taken varying types of herbs to try for a girl or boy. The difference today is we’re approaching technology that can easily and reliably achieve this on a massive scale; and technology isn’t likely to stop at sex selection. Choosing personality characteristics has also been an idea that has attracted plenty of interest. Movies abound depicting people "bred" for certain attributes. So we can manipulate nature, but does that mean we need to? Why are we not content to allow the forces of nature to bestow on us the child we are to have and care for? It seems our need to change nature stems from our expectations in life. Our expectations make us long for a baby we believe will fulfil these and if nature cannot do this, as it often cannot, perhaps the brave new world of science can…

My baby will be…

I have discovered as a counsellor working with families with young children that parents come to parenting with many different expectations of what their child will be like, even before the baby is conceived. "I picture a boy who will grow up to be strong and fearless, playing football just as I did," a dad explains. "My little girl and I will have such a good relationship, just as I did with my mum," a pregnant woman reports.

Very often, expectations rely on the belief that a child’s characteristics are genetically determined; family traits passed on from one generation to the next that cannot be changed. "If I have a girl she will be just like me and like my mum," a woman told me. "A boy will be just like all my brothers, loving tinkering with things and getting dirty," a dad remarks.

Genetics may not really be so important, however. A well-known British psychologist, new to parenting himself, has just written a book claiming genetics play a very small part in how our children turn out. In They F*** You Up, Oliver James argues it’s the way we are treated in the first six years of life that determines our choice of friends and partners, our jobs and our lifestyles. This early experience actually rewires children’s brains to fulfil certain roles in the world. With this in mind, parental expectations placed on a child from conception take on a huge significance.

Our expectations will determine how we parent our children and thus how our children experience early life. James argues, in fact, that every parent has unique expectations of a child based on gender, birth order and what is going on in parents’ lives during the child’s early years. Each child therefore has a unique experience of being parented and therefore a unique personality that is not given at birth but rather unfolds through the child’s early life.


Expectations — what do they do?

Parental expectations, therefore, are very important. "Parental expectations set up the context of the relationship with the child," says Dr Louise Newman, Director of the New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry. She comments that healthy expectations such as the wish for a happy, healthy child who will achieve something valuable are positive for the child as long as the parents can be flexible and give the child a separate space and identity. Dr Newman warns, however, that unrealistic expectations can have a damaging effect, reducing the child to an extension of its parents without the space to grow its own unique identity. To illustrate these effects, let’s look at two examples.


Expectations can damage…

Claire had her daughter Abigail fairly late in life. A former model, Claire was a very feminine woman who had longed for a daughter to dress up in pretty clothes, something her mother had not allowed her to do. When Abigail was born, Claire was overjoyed but happiness quickly turned to frustration when Abigail began to show signs of being a real tomboy. At 18 months, she wanted to wear shorts, play in the dirt and her favourite toys at playgroup were dumper trucks. Claire began to try hard to "teach" Abigail that girls loved frilly dresses and dolls and she refused to let her daughter look or act any other way. Abigail felt pressured as she grew up and rebelled by becoming more and more boyish, demanding short hair and a skateboard! By the time Abigail was 10, she and her mother fought constantly and Abigail felt self-conscious and lacked confidence. Her mother’s expectations had had a serious negative effect on her developing self-esteem.

Expectations can help…

Jack had a happy childhood growing up in a small New South Wales town. His parents were firm but fair with him and allowed him sufficient freedom to choose the things he wanted to do. His family celebrated his career choice of teaching and he felt supported in his work. His parents were also overjoyed when he met and decided to marry a local girl whom they had known since she was little. When his wife became pregnant, Jack was very happy and felt secure in his new role as a prospective father. While he had not had a preference, he was happy and proud when his son Michael was born. His expectations for his son were very much determined by his own parents’ expectations of him and Jack was happy to allow his son to develop in his own way with a great deal of love and support shown. Michael grew into a happy, confident boy keen to work hard and succeed at the things he enjoyed.


The origin of expectations

A well-respected psychotherapist in the US who works with infants and their parents talks of "ghosts in the nursery" as an explanation of the origins of many of our parental expectations. Selma Fraiburg uses this term to describe the patterns of thoughts and behaviour transmitted from one generation of a family to the next. I am here in my son’s nursery tending to his needs alone but in my mind there are the "ghosts" of my mum and dad’s parenting of me and their own experiences as children.

All the upsetting events family members have lived through and not resolved will shape, unconsciously, my own expectations of my child and therefore my mothering. I may not even be consciously aware of how much my family influence my parental role but these ghosts are powerful indeed. As a parent, I frequently react to tantrums with the same cutting words my mother used on me and her mother used on her. Therefore, unless I consciously work hard at resolving my unrealistic family expectations, my children may have all the negative beliefs of their many ancestors to deal with — a tough burden!

Parental expectations are not just handed down but are also shaped by the society in which we now live. The media often present powerful images of perfection — radiant mums with beautiful and contented bouncing babies, perfect families laughing together without a care in the world, children with sunny smiles and perfect manners. Such images can induce us to want more from our children than they are able to give. It also can make us highly intolerant of children’s normal but frustrating behaviour, something that can often make the difficult behaviour much worse as we try hard to stamp it out.

Lack of resources in society for parents can also have a sizeable impact on parental expectations of their children. A parent who is trying to hold down a responsible full-time job, run a home and manage a baby is unlikely to be able to perceive a baby’s thrice-nightly waking as normal or acceptable. The parent may well have had expectations of the baby that were not entirely reasonable from the start; tiredness and stress will make the gap between expectations and reality that much greater.


What to do?

We could simply move to mail-order babies, technology that allows a parent to choose the desirable characteristics of a child before conception. In the movies, mum, dad and baby would then live happily ever after. In real life, according to Dr Oliver James, this is unlikely to be the case. The scene at the beginning of this article would become reality — we’d be sending babies and children back by the crate for failing to live up to their product description! Not such a brave new life after all.

On the other hand, we could begin to gain awareness of our expectations and where these come from. This won’t make us perfect parents by any means; simply being aware of our expectations won’t make them all disappear in an instant. Nor will it end the disappointment we feel when our children grow up in ways that are different to our early vision. What the awareness will do is allow us to make choices.

Do I want the expectations of my forebears and the media to be the only determinants of my child’s future? Or do I want to be able to reflect on my expectations, to dilute them a little and perhaps to allow my children to grow up with the freedom to be who they really are?

Gain awareness of your expectations of parenting and how reasonable they are in the following ways:

  • Read They F*** You Up — How to survive family life by Dr Oliver James, published in the UK by Bloomsbury.
  • Create a geno gram of your children, yourself, your parents and grandparents. For each family member, write down the main personality characteristics. Are or were they hard-working, perfectionists, fun, critical, active, generous, judgemental and so on? When you’ve finished, look at the similarities. What patterns emerge in your family that are being unconsciously passed to your child?
  • Consult with a counsellor or psychotherapist to gain an understanding of where you come from. Explore the unspoken messages you have absorbed from parents and grandparents. Examine these consciously to see whether you want to keep them or discard them. With the therapist, work out a plan for removing messages you don’t want to pass on to your kids.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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