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I first thought seriously about “parent-pleasing” in my late 20’s, when I met a man I’ll call Otto Wentzler.

Otto was a student in my course, “Self-Discernment in Ministry,” at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. The president of St. Bernard’s Institute, one of three denominational institutions on campus, asked me to teach the course because “more care needs to be taken to help students determine the ‘fit’ of their ministerial vocations.”

Part of my job was to ask hard questions to potential ministers and priests about their “callings.” “What brings you to this field?” “Of all the things you could do with your life, why this?” “What are your expectations and assumptions about leading a congregation?”

Otto explained that his parents were devoted Catholics who always held great respect for priests. His mother led the family rosary on Wednesday nights, and would always end with a prayerful plea, “to infuse the Church with more priestly vocations.”

About his movement towards ordained priesthood, Otto said, “Mom is ecstatic.”

Every career decision has an impact on one’s life. In the case of Roman Catholic priesthood, where a career decision requires celibacy, the stakes are high. Too high to allow parent-pleasing to exert undue influence.

But who can fully escape it?

Thinking about my own life direction, can I honestly claim that “making my parents proud” had no part in my choices?

After talking with Otto, it dawned on me that parental pressure is likely more caught than taught. Often, it’s picked up by children, without awareness, and acted out, sometimes for an entire lifetime.

Every kid has a “secret smeller” that detects what buoys their parents – and often, an irrational desire to deliver it. Do we even know when our approval-seeking instincts are being unleashed?

Parent-pleasing exerts itself beyond work choices. It can also impact mate selection, child-rearing, money values, political affiliations, racial bias, and other consequential choices.

How much of any individual’s career aspiration – including operative beliefs about money – emerges from parental hopes and expectations? You might think about athletes, doctors, actors, artists, business owners, scientists or entrepreneurs.

One place where parent-pleasing flourishes deserves special mention: family-owned businesses, where it’s often expected that one or more offspring will join the business.

I’m suspicious about the assumption that because I (or my grandparents) founded a business, and the business is a success, my children should join the business. Not so fast.

Are you thinking about joining your family’s business?

As with Otto and the priesthood, some clan members are vulnerable to joining the family business for the wrong reasons.

You know the type – a person who can’t handle disappointing others, someone without a clear mind of his own, one who craves parental approval even as an adult. Some next-generation children are thoughtful and clear about the pluses and minuses of jumping on board the family’s business. Others betray their excessive parental allegiance with telling responses:

“My dad wants me to run this someday.”

“I think it would really disappoint my parents if I went in a different direction.”

“It’s been assumed that my sister and I would carry on the business.”

A fundamental challenge of becoming an adult is the ability to distinguish what one thinks, feels, wants, and believes from what one’s parents think, feel, want, and believe.

A mature mindset operates like this: “This is my life. I will consider what others think, feel, want and believe, and reflect on my own position. I will monitor the influence of parental emotional attachment on my decisions. I will regulate as best I can external or internal ‘should’ impulses. In the end, I have to live with my decision.”

Here are some questions for next-gen family members to consider:

  • How much life/work experience do I have outside the scope of the family business?

  • Do I believe I need the family business to realize satisfaction and financial freedom?

  • Am I requesting to join the business, or are my parents initiating or dropping hints?

  • What are my assumptions and expectations regarding work ethic and entitlement, if I were to join the family business?

Now, a thought for current owners: There’s nothing wrong with parental enthusiasm for a child to join the family business. Tempering that excitement with a neutral stance can create more emotional space for offspring to decide for themselves what direction to take in their lives.

Ultimately, parent-pleasing – making critical life choices to win the approval of one’s parents – is not a convincing rationale for one’s life direction.


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