A talented 27-year-old client of mine complained that her mother, a vice-president, was on her back to lobby for a larger bonus and an exercise subsidy. She said her mother didn’t understand the difference between being at the top of the ladder and the bottom when it comes to latitude for negotiating perks, even if you are a top performer.
This is one of the milder complaints I hear from young people about parents offering unwanted advice, at best, and actively trying to take over their child’s career choices, at worse. All this interfering doesn’t do anyone any good. Quite simply, it is no longer mom and dad’s business, even if it hurts when adult children disappoint or, in parents’ eyes, flounder.
In workshops, I routinely ask young people: “Do you think your parents understand the career challenges you deal with?” About 80 per cent say their parents do not grasp how high the bar is, or the intense competition for jobs. Nor do their parents understand how different the effort-to-reward ratio is today, compared with 20 years ago when an entry-level professional salary could provide a foothold in the housing market.
Parents can get it wrong in many ways. Like my client’s mother, they offer advice based on privileges they themselves enjoy, or on outdated strategies that worked for advancement in the 1970s and ’80s when they started out.
More dangerously, parents also get it wrong when they project their own values and aspirations for their children – whether wishing that their kids were hungrier to move ahead, or to go back to school.
Because many parents are overinvested in their children, they believe they have the right to opine about their offspring’s career management, and to criticize them for not behaving the way they want them to. The parents react at a deep emotional level when the kids don’t comply with their advice.
For example, I know a woman who is so agitated and depressed about her 30-year-old son’s lack of ambition that she is not sleeping and is taking anti-anxiety medication. She says no matter what she tells him, it falls on deaf ears, but she can’t stop “obsessing” about the mistakes she knows he is making. “It drives me crazy that he is satisfied with so little,” she says.
Another common flashpoint, for mothers in particular, is working daughters with children. They worry about and criticize their daughters for working too hard and not spending enough time with their kids. (The older generation forgets that when they were working mothers, 20 or 30 years ago, they were able to turn off work at 6 p.m. and be “mom” – no longer an option for many of today’s working mothers.)
No one benefits from these interventions. Parents are frustrated and disappointed that their adult children are rejecting their values and advice; and the kids are irritated and hear only “blah, blah, blah.” Worse, they feel that their career choices are not valued.
And parental critiques (which parents consider helpful advice) can backfire. Many twenty- and thirtysomethings have confided that they did not pursue a graduate degree precisely because their parents wanted them to.
Parents need to walk a delicate line between offering suggestions, when support is requested, and knowing when to back off.
If your children express a desire for help with their careers, by all means introduce them to people in your network. You can also make suggestions and provide another perspective about how to think about a problem.
For example, many young people who believe they deserve a raise will not ask for one because they don’t know that it okay to do so, or they imagine their boss will be angry with them. Point out other scenarios – that it is unlikely that the boss will be angry, and that chances are the boss has asked his or her own manager for a raise.
Parents can also better manage their own emotions by separating their identity from their children’s career choices and satisfaction. Mothers often tell me how awful they feel because their child doesn’t like his or her job or boss; to hear mom describe the situation you would think her child was diagnosed with a fatal disease. (Mothers and fathers tend to have different priorities: Mothers are more concerned with happiness, fathers more with advancement.)
Or they use kids’ stress level or discomfort as a measure of what is asking too much of their child (“I don’t expect John to network because he isn’t comfortable doing that”). Unfortunately doing something that makes you uncomfortable or ill at ease is part of work life.
When parents try to prevent pain, or broker everything, they undermine confidence and rob their children of the deep satisfaction of knowing whatever they have achieved they owe to their own effort and skills – precisely what produces a sense of competence. Most important, parents need to accept who their children are. Do not evaluate them against your aspirations for them, or the success of others.
Many parents try to manage their children’s careers the same way they did their messy rooms. But although they had the right to bug their kids to tidy up their rooms, they don’t have the right to bug them to tidy up their professional life.
Barbara Moses, PhD, is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and the author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life. Website: bmoses.com