Thursday, November 29, 2012

Stop "Shoulding"

I'm posting an article written by Lisa Olson, creator of College Gig.

My favorite quotes from this article:

"Just because I am their mother doesn’t entitle me to their life experiences... My role is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each of them to offer support, suggest practical tools, and teach valuable life skills."

And, here is the full blog post written by Lisa Olson:

"Stop Shoulding on Your Children…and Yourself, For That Matter!

I am prone to anxiety. I get anxious over just about everything. My life is quite blessed, frankly. We just got back from a week vacation in Maui. I got to spend Thanksgiving with extended family. My immediate family is healthy. We live in a beautiful area, evidenced by my late November hike in shorts and a t-shirt. I have supportive friends and colleagues. AND, we are getting a Chocolate Labrador Retriever puppy for Christmas.

Yet, I have difficulty resting that attitude of gratitude. I think I “should” be doing more…or less. I “should” know more…by now. I “should” have a bigger yard. I “should” bake more zucchini bread from scratch, using the zucchini from my carefully tended garden (did I mention that I can’t keep a houseplant alive?). I “should” volunteer more at my children’s schools. I “should” be a more patient parent. I “should” have little stress and much less anxiety. I “should” do the laundry more efficiently. I “should” have children who excel in history.

As long as I am distracted by my fantasied Hallmark life, I miss my abundantly blessed life and the great people in it, namely my husband and children.

Quarter grades and progress reports were sent out last month. Those of you with students in middle-school and/or high school already know that only the parents of students with D’s or F’s receive the progress reports. Both of my older children are “in danger of failing” their respective history classes. Ironically, they are both at the grade levels which focus on World History. I guess the good news is that they are struggling in the same subject, so we have an existing study group to help them pull up the World History grade. They don’t think this is good news.

Perhaps I have anxiety around it because I was an accidental History minor in college. I admit it, school comes fairly easy to me. I love learning. I love to be in school. I fit into the existing education framework that teaches to my learning style. When I was in college, I took a lot of college history courses simply because they interested me. When it came time to graduate, I had accumulated enough history courses that I could declare a minor. It wasn’t my plan. Like I said, it was an accident. So, back to present day: the reality is that two of my kids are in danger of failing World History and I have the anxiety. I think it is my unrealistic expectations that they “should be” somewhere else (achieving an A…or B…even a C) that they are not.

I suppose I am telling myself that my children “should” do better in history. Why? Because I did better in history? I don’t know about you, but I am guilty of not seeing my children exactly as they are. I see them as how I think they “should” be based on what I “should or “shouldn’t” do. I unfairly compare their accomplishments to their peers’ accolades. They “should” be able to do “that” too. They “should” have no struggles in school, especially not in history…or, while we are at it, Geometry. Ugh, why stop at History when we can dwell on future Geometry performance? Next year I will have a sophomore who will take Geometry. I got an A in Geometry….will I expect that from her too? See, it never really stops. I am not telling you, as much as I am reminding myself…publicly. Is this helpful to them? Is this helpful to me?

No, and…no. Sending them the message that they “should be” doing better or they “should be” getting a different grade hurts them. I am simply projecting my fears onto them and not accepting them as they are…right now. They learn to doubt themselves and to avoid reality, which is unrealistic and thus, perpetuates anxiety. My intention is to teach them to embrace all of life’s lessons – good and bad – and to be resourceful, creative and imaginative in pursuing illumination. Instead, my fantasy of “shoulding” has equipped them only with more anxiety.

My anxiety stems from my untethered fears, and the stories that I tell myself about what may or may not happen as a result of those irrational fears. I am usually wrong about how things turn out. Yet, I find familiar comfort in the fretful worry over things that I cannot control. I scare myself into falsely believing that my kids will not be okay if ________________ (fill in the blank). If I keep imposing the sentence of ”should be” on them, then they will likely not fare well and my anxiety remains at intolerable levels. However, once I become willing to accept the reality of my situation, my anxiety lessens and I can seek out a solution. In this case, I am now willing to accept the progress reports for my struggling students (they did come out a month ago!). Now that I am breathing again, I can ask for support and direction from the school, the teacher, and my friends with similar experiences. I can also see my children exactly where they are at on this given day. Neither of them appear to be celebrating this lesson…yet. I can tell you that they feel worse about this reality than I do.

I nearly bombed out of college altogether, because of my poor choices and the consequences of those decisions. Yet I survived myself, and I am okay. As a matter of fact, I have a very rich life! The semester ends mid January. The quarter progress reports initially scared me, and are now motivating me. Just because I am their mother doesn’t entitle me to their life experiences. The D in World History is not a reflection of me either. They each get to have their own experience of a D in World History. This isn’t my experience. I did fail German, but not World History, so I can have some empathy. However, this is their life story to tell…not mine. My role is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each of them to offer support, suggest practical tools, and teach valuable life skills.

For me, it is much easier to just worry; in part because I still believe I “should be” a more knowledgeable mother, but mostly because I would rather avoid reality altogether. My “shoulds” allow me to stay entrenched in my fantasy life that is surrounded by a white picket fence. Honestly, my desire to avoid reality is directly proportional to the self-doubt of my own abilities. Am I really able to teach life skills to my children when I, myself, feel so anxious about it all? Yes. I learned from a wise friend that I can still carry out whatever is in front of me to do, and feel scared while doing it.

They each have a D in history. So what? I have a BA in Speech Communication, with a History minor. I got a D in College Algebra, twice. My kids are excelling in math right now…"

Any comments?


  1. Excellent article! It is always good to be reminded that as parents we are not resonspible for our children's accomplishments or short-comings. They are able to make their own choices and must reap the rewards or suffer the consequences those choices bring. There are a lot of things I should have or should not have done with my kids, but I can't change that now, I can only move forward and trust that they will make more good than bad choices, and while I too suffer anxiety over their bad choices, it is ultimatley their life and their personal journey. Thanks for reminding me of this; I will try to cut down on thinking about the "I should haves"!!

  2. Good article and needed reminder. The timing could not be better. We live in Costa Rica, very remote and close to nature. We've got a homeschool w/7 kids and we struggle w/"comparing" worlds. We're getting perspective, setting goals and keeping the charge. Thanks Kerry!