When I Realized I Had To Stop Pressuring My Daughter To Be 'The Best'

by Brandi Jeter Riley
LightFieldStudios / Getty

Growing up, there was only one thing I wanted to be. A star. I didn’t care if it was performing on Broadway or for my local news anchor. I wanted to be front and center, in the spotlight, showing everyone how great I was.

I never took dance classes or acting lessons as a kid, and I lived in another country for a good chunk of my adolescence. That didn’t stop me from wanting to be a Cosby kid (#bulletdodged), or on a show like You Can’t Do That On Television. I was in awe of the kids on those shows who got to act, go to awards shows, and be featured on teen pop magazines. I thought that if I could be famous, I would be important and people would care about me and want to be around me.

Most of my ambitions as a child were rooted in wanting to be accepted. I was never really the cool kid, and my young parents had so much going on that I wasn’t a huge priority for them, either. Most of the time I walked around feeling invisible. I started to realize that when I achieved things, though — when I was recognized for standing out in some way — people took notice. Whenever there was a contest at school or anywhere, I would enter. It could be writing, dancing, math — if there was a public acknowledgement connected to it, I would sign up. I craved attention, and I knew I would only get it if I was the best.

When I became a mom, I had grand dreams for my daughter. I was going to make sure she got a chance to do all of the things I didn’t get to do. If she wanted to take a drama class, I was going to get her private acting lessons. If she showed an interest in science, I would make sure she was enrolled in the most elite science camp for the summer. I would do anything to help her be great. To help her be the best.

My daughter wanted none of that pressure. From very early on, she was content to be in the background of activities. She didn’t need to be a standout. As long as she was participating and she was with her friends, she was good. It wasn’t about the accolades for her at all. She did things for the pure joy of it.

My daughter has way more self-confidence than I ever did. Although one of her love languages is words of affirmation, she doesn’t need people to tell her that she’s better than anyone else. She just needs to know that she is good on her own.

I see that as a real sign of true self-confidence. It’s rare that someone else’s opinion of her makes her change her mind about the way she’s feeling about herself. She really believes that being in the ensemble or sitting on the bench supporting her friends who are on the starting line-up is just as important as standing in the spotlight.

I used to try to push her to do more. “Don’t you want to be the lead in the play?” I’d say. At first, when she would say no, I would feel defeated. Is my child content to be mediocre? What’s wrong that she doesn’t want to be a star? I never pushed her to the point of tears or discomfort, but I wanted to. Who doesn’t want their child to be great?

As she got older, she was able to find the words to express to me why she wasn’t pressed to be a star: “Mommy, the ensemble is important, too. We’re all part of the same team. I just love being with my friends and having fun!”

That’s when I realized I needed to back off. If I had my way, I would have sucked all of the joy out of her activities in my effort to make her “special,” when in reality, she felt special all along. I decided to let her do what made her happy and to stop projecting my past feelings of inadequacy onto her. I needed to let her have fun with her activities without the pressure of it turning into her career.

The truth is, not every kid that plays tennis in elementary school is going to be Serena Williams. Just because a child is in a school musical, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to turn into the next Idina Menzel. That’s okay, and the sooner we parents realize that, the more fun we will allow our kids to have.

Now, I let my daughter dictate how I can best support her in extracurricular efforts. When she wanted to play basketball, I went to every game and recorded her both when she took shots and when she cheered on her friends from the sidelines. In theater, when she auditioned for Willy Wonka, I helped her prepare her audition, but let her know that if she didn’t get it, it was no big deal and I would still be happy for her.

She was grateful for the support and reminded me, “Thanks, Mommy. Because really, there are no bad parts.”

Of course, I didn’t complain when she got cast as Willy Wonka.

What can I say? Maybe that little girl who wanted to be a star is still a part of me. And old habits die hard.