Are You “Living Through” Your Children?

James (left) and Daniel, after they got the thrill of playing a $150,000 Steinway grand at their last recital.

James (left) and Daniel, after they got the thrill of playing a $150,000 Steinway grand at their last recital.

I think I’ve mentioned that my boys both take piano lessons. My big boy started in second grade. A year later, when his brother was in first grade, he started too. It was perhaps a little bit early for him (he got kind of goofy and often his half-hour was cut to 20 minutes, the extra 10 given to my older son).

It’s not very expensive, but it’s not cheap either (though given that aside from soccer for the younger kid, neither has another activity that costs much at all — I might have a harder struggle with piano-lesson money if I also had to buy hockey equipment or dance-recital costumes). Neither is a prodigy, and I expect neither ever will be, though sometimes they surprise me. Thing is, I just plain-old, flat-out, unabashedly love that they take these lessons, and lurking behind the main aim (that I believe music education is a great gift they’ll have for their whole lives) is another reason: I wish I had taken piano lessons. I’ve always admired musical talent of any kind, and I have none.

But is that the same thing as “living through” my children? I’m pretty sure, for me, that it’s not. I thought about this after reading a report about new research that attempted to tease out whether parents sometimes attempt to recreate their lives through their offspring. The study, conducted by doctoral student Eddie Brummelman at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, took the form of a survey: 73 parents (mostly mothers) were asked if they saw their child as a “part of themselves.” Then, they were asked to write about failed ambitions, either of their own, or of someone they knew. finally, they answered questions about their desire to see their children fulfill ambitions they themselves could not or did not. (I guess that’s where me and the piano come in?)

So, it appeared that when the parents wrote about a friend’s failed ambition, it didn’t seem to influence what they desired for their own child (so, I wouldn’t have gotten my sons piano lessons because my friend never took piano? Hrm….). But when the study parents had time to reflect on their own “broken dreams,” they began to express hope that their children could pick up the broken pieces and recreate the dream.

I dunno.

One of the primary objectives I had for my children (after “keeping them alive”) was specifically not to live through them, to create and then combine our goals. That was twinned with my personal objective, to remain myself, as I had defined myself up to when I had my first son, with the added-on piece of Me as Mother. I wasn’t going to turn into someone who dropped the “Denise” in favor of “Daniel’s Mom,” which I believe helps me better see Daniel (and, of course, James) as their own people. (In fact, those objectives became chapters one and two of my book!)

I love that they play the piano. I push them hard (not Tiger Mom hard, but hard) to practice. I applaud them when they do well. Daniel just almost-mastered a pretty difficult Mozart minuet (I am quick to add, arranged for a beginner-to-intermediate player; believe me, Juilliard is not in his future), and my heart is bursting with pride. And sure, I do still wish I could play, too.

The study report concludes by noting — pretty crucially in my opinion — that there’s no evidence that the parents who seemed to want their children to take up and fulfill one of their “failed” dreams actually pushed their children to do so, nor does it say that, if they did prompt their kids to do or try things the parents themselves never completed, it was harmful to them.

Ah, so there it is. It’s fine that even a small portion of my desire to see my boys stick to piano derives from my own lack in that area, because that’s not what I tell them is the reason (I encourage them to feel the joy of playing a piece of music, or being able to read music, or performing something they’ve worked on and receiving kudos, or any of the other positives of playing an instrument). But it’s there.

And I’m good with that.

What’s your take?