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The Psychological Price Of Successful Parents

Father and son
Father and son
Paula Galinsky

BUENOS AIRES — Eduardo Roverano, 61, inherited the family business, a Buenos Aires funeral home founded in 1883 by his great grandfather. "I have vague memories of when the funeral cart was drawn by black horses," he recalls. "I began working at 15. And it wasn't a desk job. They sent me to pick up corpses."

Roverano admits that he spent years in therapy coming to grips with the more traumatic aspects of the job. In the end, though, he chose to stick with the profession. "I like it because the work is basically social," he says. "You provide an essential service at a delicate moment. I decided to train so I could do it properly. I studied to become a funeral and ceremonies director." But he also felt a responsibility, he says, to carry on the work of his father, and of his father's father before that.

Having a family business to take over can be a blessing. The same goes for people who follow in the footsteps of successful parents, be it in business, politics, entertainment, even sport. Family connections create opportunities. They open doors. But for some, those kinds of advantages can also be a curse.

Pedro Horvat, a Buenos Aires psychoanalyst, says that all parents have set expectations for their children. But they don't all react in the same way when things don't go according to plan, he explains. While some parents can be flexible — and thus avoid conflict — others buckle down on the expectations they've established. "If fulfilling those expectations becomes mandatory, that's when the child can feel emotionally manipulated," says Horvat.

People feel the weight of having to replicate things

Juan Eduardo Tesone, a member of the APA association of psychoanalysts, says parental expectations can play a major role in how a child develops as an individual. And in cases where parents are successful or prominent in their respective fields, children often lose their freedom to choose. "I have patients who studied a university course reluctantly, then did something else," he explains. "In order to free themselves, in other words, they first "had" to carry out their parents' wishes. They devoted years of their lives to fulfilling someone else's desires."

But not all family expectations are about pursuing something. "There is also the father who asks his son not to repeat a particular conduct," says Tesone. "The issue comes up a lot in therapy and is present behind most conflicts."

Just by being in a family, people feel the weight of having to replicate things like personal manners and social status, according to sociologist Manuela Gutiérrez. "That's when parental legacy becomes an added pressure," she says. "You can try and stand out in a different field from your parents, but you never fully escape their reality. You'll always be so-and-so's son or daughter."

Enrique Novelli, a psychologist who has worked with UNESCO, says parents who impose their model as the only valid one force their children into making uncomfortable decisions. "Either they can submit to someone wishes, or be dissatisfied, rebel and feel guilty," he explains.

Feelings of inferiority or fear of failure follow the same direction. That can happen, for example, when a parent — however well intentioned — helps a child land a job, Novelli explains. The person may end up performing well in the job. And yet there's always that nagging doubt, "the feeling that it was "daddy" who really put them there," he says. "In the long term this affects your self-esteem. It ends up being more of a burden than an advantage."

There are, of course, exceptions. Damián Stiglitz, 30, comes from a distinguished family of jurists and lawyers. His grandparents, uncles, parents and siblings were in the law. But while he grew up amid conversations about trials and law codes, he became the first member of the family in 60 years to graduate in a different course. Studying law would have been the "easy path," he says. "I knew I could count on work at the law firm founded by my grandfather Rubén."

Stiglitz describes his father, Gabriel, as "the son" who managed to stand out in his field. "In my case, I went against the tradition not because I was afraid of just being someone's son, but because I knew I loved literature," he says. He explains he made it a challenge to forge a career from his course at the University of Buenos Aires, and began with giving lessons. "Initially I had two students," Stiglitz says. "Today I have almost 70 and my own institute where I teach Argentine history through literature and film."

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