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Why You Should Stop Talking About Your Son's "Potential"

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

We speak with a lot of parents at Valiance. In fact, speaking with parents is often an integral part of beginning our work with young adults. In those early conversations, the vast majority of parents say to me that their son “is a great kid”, that he has “so much potential” and that “he’s capable of so much more”. These sentiments come from a place of love and care AND they are often true. Their son IS struggling to reach his potential. He may seem to be alone, have little desire to pursue things of interest, seem isolated, uncommunicative, disorganized, and unmotivated. What’s not to worry about?!

From our vantage point, the challenge here is that by talking about unmet potential you’re actually increasing the likelihood that your son is retreating within himself and removing himself from even, as one client put it, “trying to try”. Let’s map out why that’s happening:

Potential is outcome focused. It implies that there is some end goal that you have envisioned for your son. It may mean graduating college, having good, close friends, demonstrating drive and motivation in school, working, or perhaps, more basically, wanting your son to “just be happy.” By the way, these are all great things! It’s great to have expectations, but what’s missing here is an understanding that your son KNOWS these things too. He already knows that’s what’s expected. In fact, that’s all he knows. The vast majority of young men that we see are acutely aware that college is the norm, not the exception. They know that good grades, extracurricular activities, good friends, no smoking, no drinking, an 11pm curfew, lots of exercise, not a lot of video games, good meals…all of it…is good for them, and are all things they should be doing…they know it all. Think about how you’ve raised them. I’d venture to guess that this has been a part of the culture that your son has been steeped in since preschool. They can’t escape it, and that, in essence, is the problem.

Let this sink in: I worked with one young man who said that “I’m scared to fail, mostly because I have no reason to.” He wasn’t afraid of solely failing, but rather was afraid of failing to take advantage of all that he’s been given to live up to his potential.

When parents focus or talk about “capability” or “potential” they unknowingly create a pressure cooker of performance anxiety for their son. As with the case above, and thanks to your well intentioned parenting, your son is often equipped with everything he may need to be successful, yet he still may struggle along the way. Worse yet, when he doesn’t achieve results, he not only feels like he then lets himself down, but more powerfully, that he lets YOU down. Nothing is more isolating, infantilizing, or embarrassing to a young man than feeling ineffective.

This is right about the time where many parents will say…“well, if he just does what he knows he should do, then things will get better. If he knows what to do, then just do it!” They might also be completely dumbfounded around why such small steps of progress should be praised. Shouldn't we just expect this from him?

Again, too outcome focused, and this time, with a sprinkle of shame inducing contempt. Too much attention on outcomes leads many young men to do everything they can to achieve end states, but leaves them terribly vulnerable to facing adversity along the way, and absolutely crestfallen if they fail at any point. They’ll say things like “I put in all this effort and I didn’t even pass” or “why should I even try if I don’t know if I’ll do well”. They are defeated. And in their defeat, they are choosing to isolate, licking their wounds alone in their bedroom, saddened, sullen and distanced, caught perpetually in a cycle of knowing what should be done, but petrified by taking action that will leave them feeling like a failure to those that they care about most.

Although perverse, they would rather suffer in silence and be the victim of their own self sabotage, than subject their parents, their friends, or those that they know hold them in high esteem to further disappointment in them. At least in this way, only they suffer.

Despite this grim picture, there’s some hope. Here’s what you can do:

1) Set goals, set expectations, but hold them loosely

Goals should be considered more as “aims” when thinking about unactualized potential. It is still very important to be clear and concise in formulating goals for your son, but separate their identity from their achievements and view the end state as something worth aiming for, even if that means it’s not ever fully achieved. If they don’t achieve these goals, we want them to know that they aren’t a failure, but rather they are just learning as they go. Given this, the goal can therefore be held loosely in favor of knowing that growth along the way is the real objective.

2) Potential is just unrealized effort, so focus on the effort

As we grow from childhood to adolescence, rewards and punishments need to change. You’ll of course already know this if you’re struggling to motivate your son using tangible rewards, or try and punish them by removing privileges. What works just as well, if not better for emerging adults is verbal affirmations (going out of your way to verbalize authentic praise that is deeper than “good job”). Your son cares about what you think of them. So when you affirm their efforts, they are likely to keep applying effort. That said, and as we’ve just outlined, if you affirm outcomes, they’ll work really hard to get there, and if they don't, they will feel like they’ve failed you.

Efforts > Outcomes…always

You can read more about this approach here.

3) Take a Long View

When you’re weathering the storm of adolescence, it’s easy to get caught up in all the small things. Where’s he going, what’s he eating, who’s he seeing, how’s his grades, is he smoking, is he drinking, is he having sex, who likes him, who doesn’t…the list is never ending.

I might encourage you to ask yourself the bigger questions and get some better answers: “Is he on the way to being a good person?” “Is he on the way to being happy with HIS life?”

With a long view in mind (think 10 years), it can help shape how you may want to respond to the day to day frustrations and worries that, while important, may be relatively insignificant in the making of a good human being.

Here’s hoping for continued growth for all of us.

4) Provide guidance, not criticism

If your son is already beating himself up for not achieving goals, he doesn’t need to also hear it from the very people who he already knows he is disappointing. Parental love often masquerades as frustration and criticism when parents aren’t careful. The message being delivered is often one of concern and is born from a desire to help your son improve. But how a message is delivered is often more important than what is said. If your tone is patronizing, accusatory, curt, or perhaps heightened due to your own frustrations, then you’ve unknowingly just contributed to the very shame inducing cycle that has your son retreating. Guidance is supportive. Identify as an influencer of change, not a controller of change. Step back, recognize that he must solve these problems eventually on his own, and if you truly believe that he can, that he is…capable…then ACT like it without saying it (ie: show, don't tell). Earn the right to be consulted, don’t just provide unsolicited advice.

Onwards and Upwards!

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