Pushing your child to succeed, how far is too far?

The question, put bluntly, is: how much can you push your kids to succeed before it becomes damaging?

Father and son playing toy musical instruments


I’m glad my mum wasn’t a Tiger Mum. Being put under constant pressure to live up to high, exacting standards would’ve made my childhood hell. I mean, who knows if today I’d be a greater success with a more demanding mum, but I’m still glad my youth wasn’t filled with stress due to a ferociously overbearing mother.


Or, for that matter, a ferociously overbearing father – and that’s where my own dad neuroses come in.


You see, it’s only natural for a dad to want the best for his kids.

And humans being what they are, it’s only natural for a dad to sometimes carry that a little bit too far. Or a lot too far. You see dads like that on the sidelines of junior sports games every weekend, screaming their lungs out at their offspring, and not in what you might call a supportive way.


I’ve always been terrified of being a dad like that – one of the most horrible sights I’ve seen is a father berating his son – all of nine years old – for taking a wrong move on the footy field. It makes me shudder to think of how devastating it must be for a kid to feel the guilt, shame and even humiliation of a moment like that – feeling  like you’ve let your dad down, knowing the person whose approval you crave most of all in the world thinks you’ve failed, maybe even thinking you’ve lost your father’s love? That’s why it terrifies me to be too pushy with my kids – I don’t want them to end up feeling unloved. I can’t think of any worse failure of fatherhood than that.


But wouldn’t it also be a failure of fatherhood to have no expectations of my kids?

To not try to instil some sense of purpose or drive in them? Surely you have to put a little pressure on your kids, don’t you, or they’ll never develop any motivation at all. Or am I wrong?


This is what troubles me because although I’m terrified of being a pushy dad, the fact I’m terrified kind of reassures me that I’m unlikely to actually become a pushy dad. I have a natural aversion to that kind of behaviour, so I won’t indulge in it. But not being pushy enough? That doesn’t scare me at all, and maybe that could have negative consequences too. And that, paradoxically…scares me.


The question, put bluntly, is: how much can you push your kids to succeed before it becomes damaging?

There must be some kind of middle ground between shouting at your two-year-old for not enunciating clearly, and not caring whether your ten-year-old is toilet-trained yet. I don’t want to ever be the kind of dad who screams at his kid because they dropped the ball, but I also don’t want my kids to think it doesn’t matter whether they try their best or not.


I think you have to err on the side of laissez-faire in these things. Telling your kids to try their best, to not give up, to do their homework and put in the effort: these are good things. But when push comes to shove, I think you’ve got to hold back from either pushing or shoving.

Firstly, because of the law of unintended consequences:

push your kids too hard in one direction, and they’re liable to slingshot hard in the opposite one, so all your dedicated haranguing might end up having exactly the effect you didn’t want it to.


Secondly, because you don’t want your kids resenting you in the future.

It’s pretty easy to boss a little kid around and force them to study for hours or spend all day practising the piano. But think of the big picture: do you want to end up as the horror story your child tells their friends, or even worse, their therapist? In some cases, they might even write a book about you.


Thirdly, because there’s nothing worse than being a walking cliché.

Tiger Mums, though scary and awful, have a certain cultural cachet because of their novelty and defiance of gender norms. But there are no Tiger Dads because the phenomenon of the overbearing, tyrannical father is too depressingly familiar to deserve a pithy nickname. Basically, if you bully your kids into succeeding on your terms and compensating for your own lost dreams of youth, you are really embodying a stereotype, and that’s a really lame way to live your life.


But fourthly, and most of all, the best reason to be a gentle nudger rather than a vigorous pusher is that in the end.

Your job as a parent isn’t to ensure your kids’ material success. You’re not there to turn them into a champion footballer, an academic genius or a captain of industry. Your job is to keep them safe and make them as happy as they can be. This doesn’t mean there’s no place for encouragement or the odd reminder of the importance of hard work and dedication: but it means that when faced with a choice between being the hard taskmaster and giving your kid a hug, you should probably go for the hug. Both you and your child will remember it more fondly that way.