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Are you smothering your kids with love?

It’s possible to love your children too much and in doing so, stifle their hopes and ambitions.

columns Updated: Jun 22, 2013 21:33 IST
Sanchita Sharma

It’s possible to love your children too much and in doing so, stifle their hopes and ambitions.

No, I’m not getting into Freudian “s-mothering” that turns children into mother- and taxidermy-obsessed Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, or even soppy indulgence that turns children into bratty whiners who everyone but you wants gagged or very far away. I’m talking about simply putting your child at the centre of your life, something most parents in India pride themselves for.

For, even that much of love can unknowingly make you put pressure on them to fulfil your own unmet ambitions. It often results in children being driven to choose careers they don’t want or care for, and, when they are old enough to figure out what they really want, hating you for messing up their lives.

In a new first-of-its-kind study to test the popular psychological theory of underachieving parents living vicariously through their children, researchers from the Netherlands have confirmed that more the parents see their child as part of themselves, the more likely are they to want their child to achieve their own broken dreams.

Such parents tend to see their children as extensions of themselves, rather than as separate people with their own interests, hopes and dreams, report Dutch researchers from Utrecht University in the journal PLOS ONE.

The results, while not surprising, had not previously been the subject of empirical research. The study, conducted in the Netherlands, involved parents of children aged 8 to 15.

It’s tough to draw a line between being a smothering, caring or an indifferent parent. It reminds me of an Oprah show I saw years ago where a working, single mother of two children — boy aged 7 and girl, 5 — asking a pop psychologist whether it was okay for her to occasionally snuggle in with her kids at night because she worked two shifts that ended at 2 am and nights were the only time she got with them.

The shrink was horrified. “Sleep with your children?” he thundered. “For how long? Till your son is 18? Or till he’s 35?” The audience tittered and the young mother wept. “You cannot sleep with your kids, you’ll scar them for life,” he said, wagging his finger at her.

So the young mother was banished from her kids’ room and, from what she’d said, probably their lives. I still think her kids would have benefited from an occasional comforting snuggle, but then since I wasn’t on Oprah, my views counted for even less than the overworked mum’s who said nothing for the rest of the show, which was taken over by a young man complaining that he was jealous of the stuffed sheep his girlfriend insisted on getting to bed.

That, thought the wise studio shrink, was completely normal.

It’s not easy to step back and determine whether your concern and love for your children is normal or over the top.

One way to gauge the situation is to ask yourself how much you see your children as a part of you in a scale of ‘completely separate’, ‘similar’ to ‘nearly the same’. Next, ask yourself how strongly you hope your children will reach goals that you weren’t able to reach. The more room you give your children to choose how to lead their lives, the better parent you are.

We all need to stop ourselves from falling into the trap of basking in the reflected glory of our children to lose some of the feelings of regret and disappointment about the things we couldn’t or didn’t do.

Pressure from you to overachieve can hurt your child psychologically, with the Dutch study recommending further research be done to study the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of children driven by parental ambition.