Are we jealous of our kids?

A reader/friend sent me a link to a recent article in Details about us parents being jealous of our kids for the great lives we provide… and maybe wish we got to live.

Technically, jealousy is about wanting the other person not to have what they have, while envy is about wanting what the other has for ourselves as well, but not begrudging the other or wishing them to lose something.  Based on this framework, I would venture that most of us are not jealous of our kids, but that there are aspect that we envy.

In fact, parenting well is often about giving to our kids the very things that we did not get as children (be it authentic engagement, art and music lessons, being included on vacations or simply not marinating in an environment of resentment or depression).  Thus good parenting might naturally lead to envy.

Ambition could be thought of as the willingness to confront whatever it is that we do not have, but wished that we did, and then working to bridge that gap.  Mundane level ambition might be related to career or material things, but there can also be ambition for happiness or even “enlightenment” (whatever that actually means).

It probably serves us, and our kids as well, for us to look at whatever it is that we might yearn for, and then to go the next step deeper in striving to recognize the feelings that we are really after.  For example, if we yearn to create or express ourselves, is the core wish to contribute to the group?  Or might it be to figure ourselves out through self-expression (so that we could make better and more satisfying choices)?  Maybe it really is about our wishes to be loved, and the feeling that we need to give something in order to be loved and/or lovable (in which case trusting that we all want love, and that we are all lovable might free us up in a way that endless striving never does).

Maybe we’re just feeling depleted and exhausted, and thus our wish is for rest and renewal.  If our kids get to sleep when we’re still working, and get to come to the table after we’ve shopped, cooked and will follow up with cleaning up we may envy their relative lack of responsibility.  Yet it bears keeping in mind that kids are smart and as they develop they become increasingly aware that one day they will move into the grown-up role.  The lack of appeal of being a hard-working and sacrificing grown-up as compared to a kid who is free to dream about anything and everything goes a long way to explaining the relative paucity of true grown-ups in our culture—not to mention the all too common regressive behaviors of mid-life.

Ultimately, we should take a good look at the lives of our children, for whether they enjoy them or not, they represent our best effort to give them the childhood that we wish we had had (or to continue the tradition if we were fortunate in our childhoods).  Problems arise when the childhood we would have wanted is not the one that our kids want; just as we might have gotten our own parents’ best version of the childhood that they themselves wanted (and perhaps envied us for having).

Maybe we just can’t come to terms with the road not taken, or the “big” achievement not achieved.  And again, it serves to think about the fantasy of ironclad adequacy and lovability that is probably woven into this wish, and to see if we can’t get the feelings that we are so deeply interested in without having to win a Nobel, MacArthur or Pulitzer prize.

My vote is that we take a step back and examine our hyper-competitive culture in which the “winners” do things like live in giant houses, wear expensive clothes or eat expensive food.  How much of this is a social attempt to display success, which almost calls for other people to be around and have less, to be jealous or envious in order to validate the power of our accomplishment?  How, instead, might we take some deep breaths and challenge the prevailing mind-set of hyper competitive materialism around everything from homes to education pedigrees—a mind-set that I see leads to little more than anxiety, depletion, emptiness and restless despair.  How might we re-think “success” as “we succeed” rather than “I succeed”?

This is not necessarily about trying to be “good” people, but it’s about challenging the evidence on what endless competition and striving have truly reaped for us people.  Willy Loman is still an emblem for the modern man, and the banker or executive who has risen high above the ranks of small time business still feels anxiously dependent on his or her blackberry and the gnawing fear that no one truly cares about, or values, them as a unique individual, as a sacred spirit… that if they drop the ball, another driven and well educated achiever will step in and gladly take over.

This is like the ancient myth of the guardian of the World Tree (think Avatar, only you’re in charge of protecting the tree) where you have slain the former guardian in order to attain your glory, only now every young would-be guardian of the World Tree is eager to kill you so you cannot let your guard down or rest (much less connect or have fun).  Sometimes the glory job is a sucker’s bet—and if we all agreed to respect the World Tree, maybe no one would need to guard it.

So, let’s dedicate today to an honest exploration of what we want, but particularly about the way that we imagine that we would feel if we attained our wish.  In this way we might train our consciousness to harmonize with what is on our plates at the moment, trusting the universe and the notion that if we align with what simply is, we will feel free, happy, present and greatly relieved of the need to be more and do more.

But for this to work we might all have to put our armor and our swords down at the same time (or trust that, as the Tao Te Ching teaches, The Master is able to die and remain dead, and therefore can cross any battle field without injury).  I interpret this to mean that as we evolve, we dis-identify with the ego (that is what “dies”) and then our true and best Selves can live and be happy with who we are, with where we are and with what we have (even, or perhaps especially, on the potential battlefield that stands between the demands of our deep Selves and the demands of the outside world).  This, I believe, is very good for all our collective children.

Do you envy your kid or kids?  If you could be completely happy with what just is, how might it change your parenting and the lives of your children?

Namaste, Bruce


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14 Responses to “Are we jealous of our kids?”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Just yesterday, while folding the day’s fourth load of laundry while my sons napped, I felt consciously jealous of them – of their days in which their only “musts” are eating and sleeping and exploring. So I am especially grateful for this timely essay and its reminder that envy toward our kids has deeper meaning.

    For me, part of the problem is my own attempts to fulfill what I see to be our culture’s obsession with Weber and the idea of the Protestant work ethic. Even when I have leisure time I tend to fill it with “shoulds.” Instead of feeling envious of my sons for their apparent lives of leisure, I should reframe my understanding to not only recognize the synapses that are constantly firing in those little brains, but also to embrace the importance of downtime for myself and the ways that it might help reactivate my own little brain.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      This is an incredibly resonant insight in my view. We’ve had our collective noses to the grindstone for so long now that ground them down to spite our false faces, those hollow-man masks plastered on lives conspicuously consumed as we faux-pleasantly watch our children frolic in the too-too dress-up that we provide.

      While I’m not at all certain of the way out, we are still struggling to fully mentalize insights that have been offered by the likes of Weber long ago.

      Of key import is the verdant mix of east and west, work-ethic and we-get-there-when-we-get-there time that demands paradox, and not reductionism in any direction, as a path to the here and now.

  2. Jen Says:

    I am envious of the summer break my middle schoolers have, otherwise, not envious at all. Possibly because I am fortunate to feel that I have a balanced work-family life. In fact, both of my sons have recently verbalized feeling envious of my husband’s and my life–that we are through with our schooling and in their eyes do not have any ‘homework’. Essentially, we are able to keep work and homelife quite separate, although aren’t above airing frustrations and so forth in their presence. I think they see us as parents existing for them when we are home–which is true actually.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Sounds lovely… although I’m with you on imagining that a long summer holiday would have to be even more of a joy now than it was as a kid (and even then it was just about the best feeling in the world as Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” reverberated in my head as rode my bike to nowhere, but like mad).

  3. joely Says:

    This is a fascinating topic. I often feel as though my mother envies me. I am doing well and married well. But here is the twist, I had a crazy upbringing and my kids have it so nice and loving; I wonder: how will they know how to appreciate and work hard when life is so easy for them? I wonder if they will understand how hard life can be or if they ever really need to experience it in order to understand it. I feel like I turned so well because of my circumstances. There were no hand outs and I learned to survive on my own. It gave me strength. Where will my kids find their strength if they have nothing bad to overcome? And yes I think that sometimes. So much of our parenting is in direct relation to how we were parented. Either we do the opposite or what worked for us. So much went wrong for me I feel like they get everything I ever wanted. I guess, I am somewhat jealous. Jealous of their childhood. Oddly enough , I never thougth of it that way until just now. I am going to have to really think this one through.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Yes, I see my kids sometimes wishing that they had it harder because they intuit that this would toughen them up, but we parents cannot help but make things as good as we can… and then both envy their comfort and wonder if they’re missing out in the sorts of struggles that may have helped form us.

      Perhaps the struggle of being soft in a hard world will turn out to be the soul-making challenges of privileged kids?

      Either way, it’s nice to ponder these things along with you (and I know what you mean about parental envy coming toward us from our own parents).

  4. Mojgan Says:

    I’m going through a miserable divorce, and I’m envious of the kids and parents( I wish my kids would have) who have stable, peaceful ” normal ” homes filled with love, understanding,unity, and harmony. For all the swim lessons or quality time I’ve spent being a full time stay at home mother ( which I did not have ), I was still unable to provide them a two parent stable unified home. So, I’m sorry that I don’t envy my kids. They have to share my time, my energy of one person between the five of them. I don’t envy my kids.They deserve much more…

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Such a lovely gloss on this question—the wish for your kids to be happy enough to envy. Perhaps the parents of those kids you do envy will send good wishes in the direction of realizing that if any of us parents, or children, are not happy none of us can be completely happy (even if we don’t consciously know that).

      Perhaps the pinnacle of human possibility is the global and collective recognition of each other as kindred, especially those of us who, in our woundedness, fall short and leave others in the trail of our destructive pain.

      Hopefully, Mojgan, all the giving of what you did and do not get will come back to you and prove to have been a right path in the end.


  5. Amber Says:

    My greatest wish is for my children to be better than I am. I once mistakenly told my mother this (implying that I am better than she is) and she was quite hurt. My husband and I are making big sacrifices right now so that we can provide for our children in the future. Am I jealous of that? Maybe in a way. But, I want my kids to see how important it is to sacrifice. I know the time will come when they will need to do this and I hope they can look at me and my husband as an example.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Yes, I think each generation stands on the shoulders of the one before (that is unless our parents stand upon us, I guess). You’re right to evoke the opposites, how we might be a little jealous but also want our kids to grow beyond us.

  6. Khim Says:

    In almost every way the lives of my boys in childhood has been better than what I experienced. Turned out it wasn’t as perfect as I had wanted and worked so incredibly hard for, but none-the-less, better. That was my chief goal when I made the decision to have children. Much hurt and pain from my own childhood was healed by seeing beings I love more than life itself have better than I did.

    Thank you again for your incredible insight!

  7. Jennifer Gruskoff Says:

    I love your site, love the topics.
    I have not experienced the emotion of jealousy yet with regards to my kids. I wonder if I will when they start to leave the roost, and I displace my inevitable feelings of empty nest with feelings of judgement and jealousy. I really hope I don’t, but I know myself and it’s when I feel “abandoned” that the feelings of jealousy arise. Obviously, I am aware of this and will do everything I can to ensure I am grounded and content in my own life so they can go and live theirs knowing their mother wants the best for them alwas.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I think that your very consciousness of abandonment feelings being a potential trigger helps potentially trade consciousness (i.e. conscious pain even) in return for not needing to enact retaliation which is what leads to the very distance we hope not to feel.

      Perhaps it’s our community and the other supportive relationships we develop that helps us release our kids to their own independence when the time comes, trusting that out the other end they will join us in being interdependent—all our individual selves, but all in it together as well.

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