Dear Caring Parent, 

Are our children disconnecting from themselves because we are ‘shoulding’ our children into disconnecting? 

We live in a culture of ‘shoulds’. For example, we should walk 10,000 steps a day, or more, for health. Then there is all this and that about how we should eat. Or if single after college, we face commentary on how we should be married and with children by 30 for sure! Definitely we should finish high school by 18 and go to college. And absolutely, we should be ‘top-dog’ at whatever we do. 

So many ‘shoulds’! By definition, the word should is used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness; “you should do dance class, it will look good on your college app”. It also is used to indicate what is probable; “if you study you should be able to pass”. Unfortunately, the first definition is way too dominant. It also does not suggest being connected to self

This leaves me wondering, though, are we able to hear what our children’s needs and ideas are in the context of all their requirements – papers, tests, readings, extracurriculars, knowing what they want to do when they grow up, social activities, family responsibilities? 

‘Shoulds’ Have Truths and Falsehoods

This is NOT to say that every ‘should’ is wrong. The interesting thing about a should is that it bears some truth as well as falsehood. Take early developmental milestones. It’s a norm that somewhere between two and two-and-a-half years our toddlers start to put together short, understandable sentences. This is true generally speaking.  Also true is that some toddler’s talk is totally garbled at that age. If you listen you can hear the beginning of long complete sentences in the garble. Low and behold, they start speaking intelligibly in complete, lengthy sentences by 32 or 33 months. Their intelligence is no less than the toddler who has short, understandable sentences earlier on. There is a wide range of normal, of ‘should’. 

Another example of the truth and falsehood in a ‘should’ is the need to do 50,000 things to get into a good college (I know, slight exaggeration). In fact a ‘good college’ is best tailored; considering future profession, costs of the college, industry requirements and some other things. By way of example, my daughter wasn’t inclined to do the 50,000 things, to belong to clubs or do other extracurricular school activities. She got into a good college because of her love of languages, which showed in her courses and travels. She also owned her own small biz to support her travels. These were (and still are) life interests, not college resume interests. It’s true our children do best when engaged in interesting activities, but do they need to excel in sports, music, volunteering, academics, clubs and whatever else in order to get into college? It’s worth asking yourself, ‘am I shoulding our children into disconnecting?’

Is It Successful if Our Children Are Disconnecting From Themselves?

The first 18 years are hard enough, just raising a human being. As we guide our children through those years, how much are we just pressing them on to get things done the ‘right way’ so they can have a future? Statistics show that by the time our young adults get to college, they are stressed!  Between the school years 2009- 2015, there was a 30% increase in the number of American students who visited campus counseling centers, even though enrollment only increased by 5%. This article points out that it’s not just the USA. Our young people are not connecting to themselves in their learning or their problem solving. 

Is this push to advance to one’s next milestone disconnecting our children from themselves? Are we asking, ‘what are your strengths and how are you using them?’ instead of requiring them to be strong in every benchmark laid out for them in every class? Do we wonder what they are curious about? Have we checked in on how stress is effecting their body and perspective?  Are we then helping them explore their answers or just telling them how they ‘should’ feel – if they only thought this or that way or did a, b, or c all would be well.  All these externally imposed ‘shoulds’! Are they really making life more fulfilling?

Can we abide by a ‘should’ and still be internally driven? Absolutely. Plus, there are enough valuable ‘shoulds’ – should not bite, should brush teeth, should help at home. 

How Can We Support Our Children Connecting To Themselves?

Which brings me to the first step for parents in dealing with all the ‘shoulds’ impacting our children, to prevent ‘shoulding’ our children into disconnection: 

  1. Be aware of the should! 
  2. Make your choice. We get to intentionally engage with or disengage from a particular ‘should’. For instance, I really wanted my daughter to finish high school by 18. Listen to your inner voice about it. If it’s agitated, pay attention to that committee meeting in your head so you deal with the layers.
  3. Consider your child’s strengths. I knew my daughter had to be internally motivated, so I gave compliments for getting something out of a course, the grades were less of a focus.  
  4. Notice your child’s strong tendencies and how that influences the ‘should’. My daughter was/is a perfectionist (now a recovering perfectionist). Reducing the stress from this required ongoing feedback. 
  5. Listen to your child as they respond to the ‘should’. Is it growing their strength or insecurities, their creative problem solving? Does it grow their sense of control over their lives (a basic requirement in living a fulfilling life). 

The antidote to a ‘should’ loaded parent-child relationship is listening. Through listening we empower our children. Listening requires that we be open to the nuances of reasons-for an experience. And frankly, it is not always easy. All of us can keep refreshing our art of listening! It’s why I devoted a chapter and then some just to this skill in my parenting book, The Dance of Parenting

Let’s Help Our Children Who Are Disconnecting From Themselves

I’ve learned a few things from being more intentional about childhood ‘shoulds’. First, we can counter the ‘shoulds’, but our children are still susceptible to the ideas of the ‘shoulds’ pervasive in our society about what confidence looks like (not having vulnerability), independence is (not needing the help of others), and what success looks like after high school (going to college, having monetary success, dating a lot, having a lot of sex and party life). So when it’s not like that, they can stack up their self view negatively. Listen in! They will find their way. 

Secondly, have others around your child that have dared to do it differently. It’s courage enhancing! 

Thirdly, SLOW down. Some kids, more than we reckon I think, need more time to process life. Teach them to listen to themselves – I’ve had enough, this is pushing something I’m not at home with, where’s the tension showing up in my body. Start young!  

Take care now, Natasha