Living In The Shadow Of A Highly Successful Parent

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Yesterday at lunch, my boss and I had the opportunity to visit with a really interesting guy. He mentioned in passing that one of his hobbies is weight lifting. He said, “I guess I come by it naturally. My dad was an Olympian on two separate occasions in the weight lifting category”.

That perked my interest and left me with lots of questions. Some I asked and others I simply considered asking. Don’t worry. I’ve filed the ones I didn’t ask away for further exploration. I’ll pace myself and ask the more “personal” questions when the timing is right. You can bet your bottom dollar that the answers will make my blog as long as doing so wouldn’t violate the person’s confidentiality or anonymity.

What must it be like to be the son or daughter of an extremely capable and competent athletic celebrity? Would a parent with a “high achiever” persona expect the same or more from his children? Talk about rugged individualism! I can’t even begin to imagine the number of hours of practice and determination it would take to be selected to represent one’s country in the Olympic games. Doesn’t that in and of itself become a life style? It would have to be all consuming.

My parents were loving, capable and caring people, but they, like their children, were common people. Some might call them “salt of the earth” kind of people. Seriously, can it get any better than that? Didn’t Christ refer to his disciples as the salt of the earth? Obviously, he was paying them the highest of compliments. Salt was a precious commodity in his day because it was essential for life. It was used in the preservation of food as well as seasoning. It was also used as a disinfectant. In fact, Roman soldiers were paid their wages in order to purchase salt. Isn’t that the origin of the expression: “Are you worth your salt?”

According to Today Entertainment, “Not all children of celebrity parents wind up well adjusted”. In his article entitled: “Spotlight can burn children of the famous”, the author identifies the difficulty of measuring up to expectations when one’s parent is consistently in the limelight. Under the best of circumstances, aren’t there periods during adolescence where we experience self-doubts related to our ability to successfully negotiate independence and the next steps in moving toward maturity. Those issues have to be even more intense when one’s parent(s) are a step beyond the common place or the ordinary.

It was T.S. Elliot who said: “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm (that they cause) does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”

Are children cajoled or coaxed to assume the successful parent’s identity? Is there a subtle message that to do otherwise would be a grave disappointment? What happens when children can’t or choose not to live up to a parent’s expectations?

I read somewhere years ago that a professor at Duke University begins his classes of freshman students each year by asking for them to raise their hand if they were free to come to Duke or if they could have opted to go to school elsewhere? Invariably, hands of every student maintain that choosing Duke was their choice. The professor then turns the question around and asks something closely akin to: “Did you have the option to decline college and go to a vocational school to learn to learn a trade?” Perhaps surprisingly or not surprisingly depending on your frame of reference, no one in the classroom had that kind of freedom.

I remember reading somewhere that Ted Turner was encouraged (maybe admonished is a better term) by his dad (who was highly successful in advertising) to attend Harvard. Academically, Turner couldn’t get in. He opted for Brown University instead. Turner’s adaptability and success in that venue proved to be less than satisfactory as well. He didn’t finish, but that too, came as no surprise to his dad. In fact, throughout the entirety of his life, Turner never measured up and earned his father’s approval.

How’s this as a letter of encouragement?

My dear son,

I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted Classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on the way home today. … I am a practical man, and for the life of me I cannot possibly understand why you should wish to speak Greek. With whom will you communicate in Greek? … I think you are rapidly becoming a jackass, and the sooner you get out of that filthy atmosphere, the better it will suit me. … You are in the hands of the Philistines, and dammit, I sent you there. I am sorry.

Devotedly,

Dad”

Turner was twenty-four years old when his father committed suicide. He subsequently became obsessed with grasping for success in every venue of his life to posthumously earn the approval of his father.

The man my boss and I had lunch with yesterday, was both at peace with himself and with his father who is now in his eighties. His father still devotes time to weight lifting, looks light years younger than his chronological age and maintains a youthful demeanor. Obviously, it was a “like father/like son” scenario. I was shocked when the guy mentioned he had a daughter in college. He looked like part of the millennial generation himself.

Providing one’s children the freedom to be themselves isn’t an easy process. Why is that? You tell me. Fortunately, my kids shared their mother’s DNA. Consequently, self-determination and independence came easily for them. As a result, I couldn’t be a prouder dad, but I sometimes have to purposefully remember it’s not my role to tell them what to do. In case your wondering, sometimes they struggle in remembering it is not their role to tell me what to do as well. How’s that for reciprocity?

All My Best!

Don

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