When children are learning to read, how hard it is not to compare your child to other children in a competitive way. Hal is now five and a bit and his father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, discusses the ‘poisonous atmosphere of expectation’.
Not long ago I was chatting to some neighbours about our respective offspring’s bedtime. Their daughter Esme, they said, was getting to be really difficult, going to sleep later and later. She has a bath, then a story and then, they told me, she sits up in bed reading to herself for ages before she will go to sleep.
Reading to herself! I was amazed. I asked what kind of thing Esme was reading and her parents showed me one of her books. It was just the kind of thing we look at with Hal – a big picture, let’s say of Jack wearing a hat, and then a few lines underneath. ‘Jack wears a hat. Jack likes his hat. The wind blows Jack’s hat off.’ But while Esme can actually read this unaided, Hal, who is two months older than her, is very definitely still in the being read to phase of life.
The fairest thing to say was that I had a complex of feelings about this. Part of me, the insecure, (and therefore) pushy part, was jealous and disappointed. Why couldn’t Hal do as well as Esme? The neighbours were full of extenuating suggestions. Esme is a girl and they always develop earlier than boys. Esme has older sisters and that accelerates their learning. I knew all these things were true. But I still couldn’t smother that ugly, ‘my child’s got to succeed’ cluster of feelings I was having whilst at the same time trying to tell myself that Hal’s achievement level was unimportant.
Two days later I had an experience that helped me. I saw part of a programme in which a man was describing a conversation with his daughter. The man was saying that he always felt kids were pushed too hard at school and that he actively encouraged his girl not to work so hard. His admonitions hadn’t stopped her from feeling a bit anxious about how her school report was going to be received. But he reassured her. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I don’t care how good at French you are. It doesn’t matter. I just love you for you. That’s all there is to it.’
This little episode really had an impact on me. What that father said to his child is so obviously, unequivocally right. How good a child is at something is unimportant. Every instinct ought to tell you to love your child simply as they are. But it also reinforced for me just how incredibly powerful that ugly ambitiousness can be. Any counsellor or psychotherapist will tell you that they encounter client after client who suffers from deep-seated, visceral feelings that they are ‘useless’, a ‘failure’, ‘worthless’. And they invariably get these feelings from their growing up experiences in one way or another. So many parents are desperate for their children to succeed. And so many children grow up to feel failures as adults because they have absorbed this poisonous, atmosphere of expectation when they were young.
This is a sobering lesson, and one that it is often difficult to learn, especially if your upbringing was one where there was big premium on achieving. But I really hope I am beginning to take this on board. I know I can want to push Hal. But I also know that it is possible to recognise that achievement doesn’t matter. And what is a better ambition for your child? That they learn to read quicker than the rest of their class? Or that they don’t ever need to seek the assistance of a therapist later on in life? A no-brainer surely.