Link copied to clipboard

Living Through Your Kids: What Science Has To Say

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Reality television abounds with families in which children follow in the footsteps of Mom or Dad, usually resulting in scenes of conflict, competition, and mutual disrespect. Whether it’s Dance Moms, Toddlers in Tiaras, or Pawn Stars, the troubled family relationships these programs showcase make for compelling TV. Finally, psychological science is ready to describe what’s going on.

As you might have suspected, psychologists now say that some parents transfer their own unrealized dreams to their kids. This is especially the case for parents who see their children as extensions of themselves.

“Right from the beginning of psychology, there have been theories that parents transfer their own broken dreams onto their children,” says Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University and co-author of a study published recently in the journal PLOS ONE. “But it really hasn’t been experimentally tested until now.”

Bushman and his colleagues worked with 73 parents (mostly mothers) of children ages 8 to 15. These parents first completed a survey that measured how much they saw their children as part of themselves. Rankings ranges from completely separate to nearly the same.

Next the participants were then randomly separated into two groups. In one group, parents were asked to think of two goals they hadn’t been able to achieve and to describe why these goals were important to them. The second group completed the same task but about a friend’s goals, not their own.

Some of the goals parents talked about included becoming a professional tennis player, writing a published novel and starting a successful business.

Then parents were asked to think about their own unrealized goals and their hopes that their children would achieve those goals instead. Both groups of parents completed this task.

The results showed that parents who thought about their own missing dreams were more likely than parents who thought about a friend’s missed dreams to want their children to achieve what they had not. In addition, parents who reflected on their own lost goals and who regarded their children as part of themselves, were very strongly committed to the idea of their children reaching the goals their parents had missed.

Disappointment and regret are strong emotions, and it makes sense that parents have a certain amount of sadness about hopes that were never brought to life. But saddling children with our dreams reduces their status as real people. It makes them agents of ourselves and robs them of their own ambitions. Numerous studies have shown that children who are treated as objects and are over-controlled by their parents are more likely than other children to have trouble making decisions, to be easily influenced by peer pressure, and to be more depressed and unhappy.

Here’s a quick test:
If your child achieved a perfect score on the SAT college entrance exam would you feel smarter?

If the answer is, “Yes,” then your child might have a problem … with you!



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

share this
Follow Us

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.