It's True: Some Parents Want to Live Through Their Kids

Child playing piano recital.
Parents may wish for kids to fulfill their unfulfilled dreams, like become a concert pianist, research published June 19, 2013 finds. (Image credit: Jaren Jai Wicklund, Shutterstock)

Yes, mom may really be pushing you into marching band because she always wanted to be drum major. New research finds that, consistent with what kids may believe, parents really do hope to live out unfulfilled ambitions through their children.

Parents are more likely to hope that their child fulfills their own broken dreams when they see their kid as part of themselves, according to the study, which appears online today (June 19) in the journal PLOS ONE

"The child's achievements may come to function as a surrogate for parents' own unfulfilled ambitions," said study researcher Eddie Brummelman, a doctoral psychology student at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. "In this way, a sense of oneness with their children may compel parents to transfer their unfulfilled ambitions on to them."

Broken dreams

The idea that parents try to live out their dreams through their children goes back at least as far as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, both of whom theorized about the phenomenon. But no one had ever tested the idea, Brummelman said.

He and his colleagues decided to see if the theory stood up to reality. They surveyed 73 parents (89 percent of whom were mothers) of at least one 8- to 15-year-old child. First, the parents were asked how much they saw their child as a part of themselves. Next, they were asked to write either about their own failed ambitions or the failed ambitions of an acquaintance. After the writing task, the parents answered questions about their desire to have their child fulfill ambitions that they themselves never could. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]

Reflecting on a friend's failed ambitions didn't influence parents' desires for their own child, the researchers found. But when parents thought about their own broken dreams, they began to hope that their child could fulfill those dreams. The more they thought of their child as an extension of themselves, the more strongly they wanted the child to achieve their unfulfilled ambitions.

Parental ambitions

The research doesn't show that parents put these desires into practice, Brummelman cautioned. In other words, parents may want their kids to fulfill their failed ambitions without ever nudging their child to actually do so.

Nor is it known whether pushing kids to fulfill parental ambitions is harmful or not — the idea has not been tested, Brummelman said.

"Some believe that, in such cases, it may undermine children's autonomy or put pressure on them to excel," he said. Harm may come down to a matter of degree, he said, with only the most extreme moms and dads causing problems for their children. 

"The next step in our research is examining how the desire of parents for their children to fulfill their unfulfilled ambitions affects these children," Brummelman said. "For example, does it undermine children’s autonomy in choosing their own ambitions? Or does it help children find direction in life?"

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.