Parents who scream from the sidelines or hover backstage may be pushing their children to reach their own thwarted dreams, the first experiments on the long-held belief suggest.
“Our research provides the first empirical evidence that parents sometimes want their child to fulfill their unfulfilled ambitions — for example, that they want their child to become a physician when they themselves were rejected for medical school,” study co-author Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, told Time.
The experiments showed that pushy parents seem to share a common trait: They view their children as part of themselves. The researchers asked 73 parents of children aged 8 to 15 in the Netherlands to complete a questionnaire to determine to what extent they view their kids as separate people. Then, half of the parents were asked to write about ambitions they hadn’t achieved, and the other half wrote about acquaintances’ ambitions.
Then all the parents were asked how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “I hope my child will reach goals that I wasn’t able to reach.” Those who viewed their children as most closely linked to themselves were more likely to hope that their children fulfilled their own dreams.
“Several psychologists believe that, in very extreme cases, this desire could be harmful,” the study’s lead author, Eddie Brummelman, a PhD student at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, told Time. “For example, it may undermine children’s autonomy or put pressure on them to excel. But these ideas have never been tested in research studies.”
On the other hand, it may have positive benefits for the parents:
“Parents generally experience more meaning in life than non-parents do, but little is known about how parents derive meaning from parenthood,” the authors write. “Parents may derive meaning from parenthood by vicariously resolving their unfulfilled ambitions through their children. Basking in children’s reflected glory, parents’ feelings of regret and disappointment about their own lost opportunities may gradually resolve, and make way for pride and fulfillment.”
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