Do Parents Live Vicariously Through Their Children?

Category: Families & Generations, Weekly Columns

To some degree, all parents live vicariously through their children.  The question however is a matter of degree–how much?  It’s normal to want the best for our kids, but when we project our own failed opportunities or fantasies, we may be crossing an inappropriate line.

That was happening to me when my son’s musical ability blossomed and I was that parent beaming while I taped every performance of his.  Then, when he got his 15-minutes of fame and jammed with his rock ‘n’ roll idol, Chris Cornell (, I tried to milk it for all it was worth.  Was that for him or for me?

We parents need to ask ourselves why we are so interested when we get too involved, or too caught up in our kids’ lives.  I also found myself enjoying–is it vicariously or not–my son’s first romance?  I wonder if my curiosity and pleasure at his relationship is just a projection of my own failures, at his age, with girls?

Now that I’ve opened up my failings as a father, yet again to my readers, let’s explore this issue a bit further.  We all know of parents, usually mothers, who put their lives on hold during their children’s growing-up years.  They believe that they are doing the best thing for their children when, in fact, they are denying themselves and their children the benefit of having a parent who is a complete human being, on the assumption that they may have cut off something they loved doing professionally.

I will argue passionately that children are better off with a parent staying at home during their early childhood. However, I’ll argue equally that sublimating their own passions ends up making the parent less able to provide a well-rounded education and upbringing for their children.  Again, I can point to myself as an example of both–the stay-at-home-dad who did nothing else and the stay-at-home-dad who rediscovered his passion for work, while not giving up his parenting responsibilities.

My former career in television was drawing to an end, after nearly a quarter of a century. This happened concurrently with the births of my two boys, and their mother’s desire to continue working.  I chose to not pursue another job in showbiz, when the last one ended, and became a full-time dad.  My ex-wife continued to work.  I did nothing for a while but parent my boys and care for my aging and ailing parents.

These tasks certainly kept me busy and I fully justified not working due to the time demands of raising my boys and helping my parents.  But, during this period, my mind–aka my brain–stagnated at best, deteriorated at worst.  I fit in nowhere as the moms didn’t know what to do with a man in their midst when I tried to participate in my boys’ pre and elementary schools.  And, my male friends could only ask, “When are you going back to work?”

I justified my procrastination at finding that new career path by the importance and value of what I was doing by raising my boys and caring for my parents.  But, the truth was that I was “justifying” my fear and laziness over finding that new career path.

Time came to my rescue, sadly, when my folks both passed away and my boys got older, no longer needing or wanting me to hold their hands.  By now, I was a 24/7 single dad, as my marriage had ended, and I did have too much time on my hands.

I began my writing career less than two years ago and, more recently, my radio show.  The change in my relationship with my boys and my second wife was remarkable, both positively and negatively, in an ironic way.

The positive thing for my boys was that I was modeling a man, a dad, doing something worthwhile with his time rather than staying at home, waiting to chauffeur them around and hover over them while they did their homework.  My wife would readily admit that she gained more respect for me once I began working again.  My passion and commitment to my new career had a meaningful impact on the whole family.

There was a downside, as there usually is, in that I put too much time into my fledgling career and now my family was complaining of the opposite thing–that I was unavailable and “always on the computer.”  I’m working on that elusive balance.  But, nothing in life comes without its price.

All of which brings me back to the notion of vicariously living our lives through our children.  I know I was doing that until I found something of my own.  That is why parents tend to get too involved in their children’s lives.  We parents have to realize that our children are only “on loan” to us and that when they leave, we will return to ourselves.  If parents allow themselves not to grow and develop as human beings, they’ll find themselves, proverbially, “holding the bag,” while their spouses may be fully engaged and their children have literally moved on.  The saying “get a life” comes to mind.