Flame-bating feature on wellspring of resentment that builds up among over-involved parents as they create ever-more-awesome educational and enrichment opportunities for their precious progeny.
You’re an involved and attuned father. You’ve provided top-notch educational opportunities and excellent footwear. Your kids are smart, savvy and discerning. They sneer at Hannah Montana, revere Johnny Cash and glide through their go-go calendars with aplomb. You couldn’t be prouder, really.
Then one day that parental pride takes a dark new turn. It happens all at once, while driving carpool to surf camp, getting your ass handed to you in a Super Mario Galaxy matchup by your nine year old, or watching your son IM with six girls simultaneously. That’s when you feel it, bubbling up from the same dark wellspring of feeling that stirs when you behold your friend’s new high-def A/V setup or hear about your boss’ trip to Tahiti: You’re jealous.
Let’s be honest: there’s plenty to begrudge. Your kids have a far sweeter setup than you have now or ever had as a kid, back in the bygone days when 16-bit drivel like Galaga ruled and the best porn you could find was in your sister’s Judy Blume. While you fret and hustle and schlep, they merrily feast on a smorgasbord of awesome social, educational and entertainment options. Not only have they got massive multiplayer online games—they’ve got the time to play them. Not only do they know the difference between sushi and sashimi—they get those cool bendy attachments that make chopsticks a cinch (plus they never have to pick up the tab). They keep getting smarter and stronger and more savvy while you wince from that torn ACL and struggle to summon a halfway clever opinion about Lady Gaga.
“It doesn’t make much sense, but yeah, there’s definitely envy,” says Jason Avant, founder and editor of the blog Dadcentric.com and father to daughter Zoe and son Lucas, who at five has become quite the badass in karate - which is all well and good except for the fact that dad can’t quite let go of the fact that he was pretty good at martial arts himself before his training was cut short by a blown knee. “‘I’m watching him getting better and better and realizing I’ll never have that chance,” he says. “It sounds silly, but I’m suddenly become aware that I’ll never be in five-year-old shape again.”
That may be the most common strain of paternal envy - just as many women resent their daughters as they begin to bloom and fill out and attract the sidelong glances they once enjoyed, dads are often peppered by pangs of jealousy when their boys drop their childish spazziness and come into their own physically.
But well beyond athletics, many dads can’t help but feel jealous of the sheer diversity of options. Whit Honea, a fellow daddy blogger and father of 6-year-old Atticus and 3-year-old Zane, recently moved to a cozy, family-friendly community near Seattle that offers juvenile instruction in yoga and glassblowing. Glassblowing! “These kids are like little artisans with apprenticeships!” he says. “Here they are living a life of arts and leisure, and I’m living a life of grindstone and stress.”
Parental envy is nothing new - it burns in all its green-eyed glory in the Grim Brother’s tale of an aging queen (later recast as wicked stepmother) ordering a hit on her far-hotter daughter Snow White. And no doubt there were a few Ozzie and Harriet-era parents who wished they’d been given a societal pass to frolic naked in the sun like their hippy progeny. But lately parental envy has reached dizzying new heights, driven by a wave of parental overindulgence and seismic upgrades in what might be called the Juvenile Enrichment Complex.
Even in our recession-addled age, the routine path through childhood begins with music and movement playgroups and deluxe indoor playgrounds and quickly advances into afterschool hip hop classes and under-21 dance clubs.
For fucksakes, they even get Ritalin.
All of which can create deep wellsprings of jealousy among the parents doing all the arranging, planning and financing. So who’s responsible for the jealousy? Go ahead and lie to yourself if you like, duck responsibility, tell yourself you’re simply giving your kids every available opportunity in a competitive world. But you know who’s to blame. You strive to be more fun, more giving, more understanding than your own authoritarian-slash-unreliable-slash-absent parents. Now you reap the reward: kids who are way more privileged and assured and worldly and hipper than you’ve ever been.
That, in the end, is what stings most of all: they’re cooler! It’s pathetic that you even care. After all, your own middle-aged parents settled into a routine of regularity and lameness without much fuss. Not you. You decided long ago not to let the kids slow your roll. You still go to shows, still rummage for bargains at the sample sales, still consider yourself reasonably in-touch. But your kids don’t even have to try. They look good in hats and t-shirts and ties together. They can actually pull off Zac Efron’s haircut. They rule Halo 3. Meanwhile you’re exhausted at nine and feeling entirely unsure whether those new A.P.C. jeans make you look more like Olivier Martinez or Gerard Depardieu.
It’s no wonder therapists like Austin Texas psychologst Carl Pickhardt, author of many books on parenting including The Connected Father, so often encounters parents with the same age-old complaint: “My kids have no idea how lucky they are.”
Few parents can identify the true source of this ungratefulness: themselves. “Parents are entirely complicit,” he says. “They give to their kids what they never got and then get angry at their kids for not being appreciative. But of course the kids don’t know. All they know is this abundance and affluence. How could they ever be appreciative?”
They can’t, and resenting kids for how great their lives are can lead to dark places indeed. One need look no further than that high priestess of parental jealousy, Dina Lohan, for a scary object lesson. Surely Mama Lohan has, at some point, felt unadulterated pride at her daughter’s success, but her strenuous attempts to out-glam, out-do and out-party her own child speak to a particularly awful outcome of parental envy.
The trouble comes in overcoming what feels like an unassailable impulse: the need to provide the best for your kids. Too often, that desire can mutate into a drive to furnish your kids with all the stuff you actually want yourself. Bruce Miller, a television writer and father of three from Los Angeles, had his reckoning with while touring private schools with his son. “These places were amazing way better than any college I’d ever seen,” he says. One school offered courses in Chinese and a swim team coached by an Olympic gold medalist. “It made me want to go to middle school,” he says. “All I remember about middle school not being able to open my locker and fear of an ill-timed erection. And here my kid was walking into this amazing idealized version of middle school. It wasn’t fair. I wanted a do-over.”
Miller got over it once he realized that his son’s actual experience at school had very little to do with all the stuff that so captivated dad. “He cares about skin and girls and trigonometry,” he says. “It might look good to me now, but middle school still sucks.”
Recalling that the actual experience of growing up is terrifying and awful in ways we conveniently forget is one of the keys to easing the envy, family therapists say. You might also try laying off the perks and think a little less about what to do for your kids and more about what to do with them. “Switch it around,” says Timothy Smith, a Gallup researcher in family issues, author and family coach who counsels parents in Thousand Oaks, California. “Team up and plan stuff together—let them know about your limitations and budgets and priorities.” Translation: if you practice Rock Band with your kid instead of sulk about his shredding, you might even be able to show him how “Through the Fire and Flames” is really done…
On a deeper and perhaps far scarier level, the trick to defusing jealousy is letting your kids off the hook for the moat of resentment that’s built up around the castle you’ve created. “In the end it’s not jealousy—it’s loss for whatever you missed that you wish you had,” says Pickhardt. “It’s sadness. Once you realize that, you don’t get angry at the kids. You can begin to appreciate that what you’re doing is providing for your kids what your parents weren’t able to give you.”
At which point you might just be able to allow them the pure pleasure of that laser tag extravaganza and settle back into a far more familiar sensation: resenting your parents for the shitty job they did raising you.