Why I don’t insist my son live up to his potential

In a town near our house, a 15 year old boy ran away from home this week after an argument with his father about grades.

The father describes the situation like this:
“The argument about his grades may have been the trigger. I was trying to motivate him and get him to live up to his potential.”

There’s no evidence of abuse.  Just good parents pushing their kid to be his best.  I feel for this dad because that was me too.



When my son entered high school, I had big dreams for him. He’s crazy smart.  Eloquent. Personable. Creative. Handsome. Seriously, this kid’s got it going on.

And we weren’t the only one that thought so.  Colleges wrote him suggesting he skip his senior year and early admit.  Teachers gave him “Teacher’s Choice” awards for being their favorite student.  I was one proud momma.

Wanting to help him have the future of his dreams was easy because his dreams and my dreams were in the same ballpark.  Award winning Chemistry researcher. Writer. Economist. It changed from term to term but it was all good stuff.

But as time went on, he lost interest in school.  He transferred from the rigorous Jesuit school he’d been attending back to our local public school and his grades started to slide.


We did all the things “good” parents do.

  • Took him to see a counselor.  Then another.
  • Made sure there weren’t drugs involved.
  • We made our house a place where his friends could hang out even though we didn’t love who he was hanging out with.
  • Monitored his grades in his school parent portal.

And argued with him about his future and his potential like it was an Olympic sport.

Until one day, after crying my way through Target yet again, I finally realized that asking him to live up to his potential was actually hurting his potential.

Because the more I pushed him towards my vision of what was possible for him, the harder he fought against it.



So I backed off and started giving him space to explore his dreams.

We stopped talking about universities and started talking about trade schools.  He talked to people he admired about what their jobs were like and how they got there.

And most of all, I started looking for the ways I was proud of who he was instead of being proud of who he could become.

And there were plenty of reasons to be proud of who he was.

It took great courage for him to swim against the tide in our small town where 98% of the graduating class goes on to a 4 year college.  Many of them went to places like Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, NYU…

And it took great courage for me to let him.  

It took hard work for him to be a full time high school student while working almost full time at pizza parlor.

And it took hard work for me to not apologize or make excuses for his choices at book club and to “concerned” friends.  I learned there was nothing to apologize for.

There was a lot to be proud of that I’d been missing while I was focused on his potential. There was a lot for both of us to learn.

And the prouder I became of who he already was, the more I could see the fallacy in pushing him to “live up to his potential.”  Pushing him to live up to his potential was not the same thing as having high standards.  It was a rejection of who he was, in favor of who he could become.  

And I was done with that.

Being proud of who he was put the ball back in his court to decide who he was going to become.  I was there, ready to help when asked, but his future was up to him.



The fighting stopped.

He made plans.  He worked hard. He made new plans.

He asked for help when he needed it.  Asked for advice even.

We started having fun as a family again.  His final years at home became a strong foundation instead of a battleground.

I stopped pushing my son to live up to his potential.  And he started to blow my mind with what his potential really was.

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