There is no question that we live in a competitive world. It does seem like this competitiveness begins much earlier and is much fiercer with every generation. As a parent, I have often found myself in the place of too much or too little in terms of “pushing” my children to “succeed”. In my experience, inquiry into pushing my children to succeed is rich grist for the parenting mill.
I have always been an over-achiever. Competitiveness was the hallmark of my childhood. Only in retrospect and in the context of stillness was I able to see what that was all about. It was really an effort to “make up” for what I felt I lacked inherently. That sense of lack could never be filled, no matter how much I achieved. Achieving one thing drove me to the next thing in an endless loop. Without any overt pressing issues, my life came to a grinding crisis when I realized one morning a decade ago that nothing I could possibly achieve would fill this gaping hole. My whole life until then had been characterized by searching for the next thing that held the promise of respite from the inner critic that needed constant proof of my ability to succeed. Every “success” brought the much-sought respite, but it was always temporary. I thought there was some magical achievement that would provide permanent rest and silence the inner critic forever. That morning however, I realized that what I was seeking was the end of seeking.
My children have been an integral part of the journey of discovering the end of seeking. By their very presence, they demand that I clearly examine my intentions as a parent. This is because the intentions behind my “encouragement” of my children were not always crystal clear. Of course, I had grown up with the concept that parents are supposed to know what is best for their children. Like every other concept, this too came crumbling down. Do I really know what is best for them? From a practical standpoint, yes, I know it is in their best interest to not play with fire or jump off a two story building. Beyond that, can I really know what the future might hold for them and whether their “successes” in grade school will ensure their happiness later on? How can I be so presumptuous when I don’t really even know what this evening will bring? More importantly, what is the true intention behind pushing them to succeed according to my definitions?
When my children would display less then stellar self-motivation, I would notice myself lecturing them about my own childhood marked by dogged determination. I would find myself telling them stories about how fortunate they are to have the opportunities they have, compared to what I had while growing up. My children would shrink as they reluctantly listened to these stories that subtly insinuated them of being “not as good” as their mother.
Added to this predicament is the culture of expectations, be it at school or in extra-curricular activities. Competition can be very useful to bring out the best in our children. However, it is also one of those things that can become the bane of one’s existence. To succeed with a cut-throat attitude requires pushing down others in overt and vicious ways (albeit hidden under masks of politeness). It causes us to “help” our children in underhanded ways, such as concealing opportunities from other parents and their children, teaching our children to keep secrets about their activities to give them an “advantage” and so on. Strategies like these are considered fair and acceptable in the modern world, but are enormous blocks to inner growth and freedom from suffering. When we tell our children things like, “There is room for only one at the top”, we transmit our viciousness and pain of separation to them. They will grow up with this great burden and discover that they can never keep pace with expectations (theirs and ours).
We might justify our need for our children to be at the top and find nothing wrong with this approach. For two good reasons, such an approach falls short of wholesomeness. Firstly, life teaches us again and again that what goes up will come down. In the “real world”, nobody can be at the top all the time. Moreover, the top is a lonely place that needs to be claimed again and again with no respite. This was my predicament, where I longed for rest from the rat race. Secondly, the underlying issue with this approach is the distorted perception of “my” children versus “not my” children, which is an extension of “me” versus “not me”. The “me” is by nature fragile and insecure because it is an illusion. It does not have inherent existence and must continually resurrect itself in the form of pushing and pulling. Conflict is the result of this continual rebirth. Unknowingly, our children become pawns for the “me” to resurrect itself in new and conniving ways. The “me” shamelessly uses our children to feel good about itself.
The yoga of parenting leads us to question our motives for pushing our children to succeed. From my own experience and eyes wide-open approach, I find that it is my insecurity that drives me to push my children. When my children succeed, I feel good and validated for having done “my job so well”. When they do not, I feel like a failure and it hurts. I transfer my pleasure and pain to my children, and they have to carry the unthinkable burden of “looking good for Mommy”. Throughout this mess, I fool myself into thinking that this is for their best interests and for their future. Mostly, I fool myself into believing that this is for their happiness, as if happiness can ever be equated to success! There is no question that I love my children, but when my self-interest becomes mixed up in it, I am treading in the muddy waters of self-deception. Ultimately, they might need an existential crisis to discover that none of this matters, and what they are seeking is also the end of seeking.
When we want our children to earn praise for being talented, smart, capable, strong and so on, it behooves us to question our motives. When we encourage lack of transparency in order to come out on top, we are placing “winning at all costs” higher than integrity. When we push our children to be recognized every single time they venture out, we are instilling insecurity and fear of failure. We can never teach our children graciousness, equanimity and the path to inner freedom if we are caught up in the drama of vicious competitiveness. When I sit with the question, “would I be at peace if my children turned out to be mediocre?”, the answer is a resounding yes. Where my children go to college, what sort of vocation they will end up with, how “on top” they will come out and how “successful” they will become will make no difference to who they really are or to who I really am.
The greatest gift I can give them is to impart the ability to see that who they are is beyond definition, wanting, grasping or needing completion. They are already complete, perfect and full. The highest mountaintop would still be a speck in the magnificence of their fullness. The respite they seek is here, now.
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