Today’s question is definitely one that hits close to home.
The question comes from Tracey, a mom of two: a 20-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son. And she said:
“I feel like all my son does is sit around and do nothing after-school and on the weekends. I keep telling him that he needs to find an activity or a cause. If he doesn’t, I’m going to choose one for him. Is that okay, or should I just wait until he chooses his own interests?”
I’ve had many parents ask me this, and it’s a great question.
The short answer is yes and yes. Yes, you need to give him some space. And, yes, after you give him some space, you can give him some ideas.
For both parents and kids, there’s so much pressure. As parents, we want to create this perfect childhood experience for our little ones. And as kids, they want to please, especially us. It doesn’t matter if you’re 80, 45, or 14 — that pressure’s there.
Here’s an example, from my own life:
I’ve always been told I was a good writer — and maybe I am — but one thing I do know is that I LOVE writing. When I discovered that my daughter was a good writer, I jumped on it and started saying, “You should do this writing workshop.” Or “Ooh, you could write a book about this story. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
She always gave me a quick “yeah, maybe” answer and went on her way. I chalked it up to teenage indifference.
Then one day, she turned around and said, “Oh my God Mom, stop!! I want to scream. Writing is not what I want to do right. I want to sing. And yeah, maybe I’ll write songs someday. But you HAVE to stop making predictions about my future and what you think is best for me.”
As much as it hurt in the moment, she was right.
Later, I asked her why she didn’t tell me sooner that she didn’t want to be a writer. She said, “I was so worried about making you sad.”
Yikes! So…why kids aren’t honest about their interests?
Whenever I ask kids in my therapy practice about this topic, most say they don’t have the heart to tell their parents the truth because they’re afraid they’ll be upset or mad at them.
Kids want to please us because they love us, and they want us to love them. They often adopt this idea that they need to do or be something to receive our love, and they filter their sense of self to gain acceptance — from parents, from teachers, and from other caring adults.
As grownups, we don’t push interests on kids because we want to hurt them. We love them so much that we get excited about the possibilities and opportunities in front of them. We can get so caught up in the ideas of the things that we love, thinking that our teens will love, too.
But here’s the fallout: When we do this, kids don’t learn to trust themselves and their own interests.
Some will say “yes” even if they don’t want to and will stay on the path of pleasing others (a path they stay on most of their lives.) Others will just withdraw and avoid all activities. You don’t want either spectrum of that.
There are three things you can do right now to help set the tone for the framework I’ll share in a moment.
I’m a perfect example of that. What I realized is I loved writing. I wanted that experience. And I wasn’t doing any writing myself at the time but I was pushing it on my daughter. So I had to give myself a little check and say, “It’s not her thing, it’s mine.”
Now, look at the list of things you don’t love to do. How does it feel when you think of doing one of those activities? That’s how your child feels when you push them into doing something they don’t like. It’s, well, for lack of a better word, it’s gross. It’s a gross feeling.
In my case, I stopped pressuring my daughter to write. And instead, I started writing again. It was great because it allowed me to model the things that I love and show my kids a healthy way to keep interests active in your life.
Our kids can have very, very, very different interests than our own. And that’s a great thing, because otherwise, we’d have a bunch of homogenous people running around and there would be no diversity. There would be no interesting, fascinating stories; no chaos; no life.
We want our kids to be different than us because it shows that they are becoming their own people. And yes, that can make us feel rejected, but it’s not the case. This is an opportunity for your relationship to evolve. Your child needs you in a different way. They need you to trust that they can make some choices and some decisions and to do some exploration.
This is their JOB. Their job is to separate from you so they can become their own person. And when you allow them to follow their own interests, it opens up space for both of you to grow — as individuals and as a family. They’ll never learn to be independent if you’re always at the helm, steering everything.
When you give your child permission to explore their own interests, your kiddo’s going to feel so much more accepted, too. They’ll learn they don’t have to try to be loved or need to please all the time. The love is unconditional.
This is a definite possibility, and it’s one to combat with this expectation. It is fair to provide a framework for them to explore. Tell your teen that the household expectation is to pursue one activity that is creative, one that is physical and one that is intellectual. (school usually satisfies the last one). After that, give them space to choose. Have them list everything that piques their curiosity. Before long, they will start to follow that curiosity.
The moral of the story is: your thing doesn’t have to be your kids’ thing, and your kids’ things don’t have to be your things. We’re all different and that’s okay — great, even. Because it makes for strong, self-aware, unique kiddos (and parents).
And now, it’s your turn. In the comments below, I’d love to hear from you…
Tell me in the comments below and let’s keep this conversation going.