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The Curse of the Golden Child – Failure, Accomplishment and Self-worth

(2 minute read)

You know who I’m talking about. You might have a sibling or cousin who was one, or you might know them from school or college. You might even be a Golden Child yourself. This is the person for whom everything seems to come easily. They may be very smart, or talented in athletics, music, art or acting. They get along well with others, have lots of friends and are physically attractive. They never have any trouble getting girlfriends or boyfriends. And the one thing that everyone agrees on is that this person will go far. In their families, everyone agrees that the Golden Child is special, and anyone with doubts had better not voice them.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be a Golden Child, for life to be that easy? Don’t you envy the people who are the Golden Child in their family? Of course you do.

And this just proves that envy is the most wasted emotion in the human experience. Because being a Golden Child is often a curse. Here’s why.

What If I Fail?

Some families invest their honor and reputation in the success of their Golden Child. Parents brag to their friends and relatives about their child’s latest achievements. Family time and money are diverted into giving the child every opportunity. The child knows that a top university and a successful career lie ahead — it’s as certain as the sun rising in the east tomorrow. Sometimes parents let it be known that the child’s success is a replacement for their own failures, or their own lack of opportunities. “If only my family had had money, I would have become a doctor/lawyer/musician/athlete/etc. But I had to leave school to make a living.” In some way, the child learns that their success will given meaning and weight to the lives of their parents.

And so failure is terrifying. The shame of letting their parents down, of standing before their families as the One Who Did Not Live Up To Their Promise, of seeing others who they considered their inferiors surpass them — it’s the stuff of nightmares.

To make matters worse, failure on some level is almost inevitable. The Golden Child may be brilliant and talented in their school, but no more than average at Oxford, Yale or Stanford. And equally average at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, medical school, professional sports teams, orchestras or the world of acting.

Do You Love Me, Or My Accomplishments?

Golden Children get lots of praise for their accomplishments. Smiles, hugs, kisses and compliments are bestowed for every achievement, and there are many. Or in families that do not offer a lot of praise, it’s the reverse: the perfect score is expected and demanded, and anything less is met with a barrage of criticism and disappointment.

The Golden Child learns quickly to please. The penalty for failure is criticism and disappointment from parents and other caregivers. And very often, the Golden Child interprets this as a withdrawal of love. Love therefore becomes conditional. The agreement is this: The child succeeds, and the parents in return bestow their love. And the child unconsciously comes to believe that their parents don’t really love them — they love the child’s accomplishments. And growing up feeling loved only for what you do, rather than for who you are, is a recipe for unhappiness.

Most parents would be horrified at the idea that their Golden Child feels loved only for their accomplishments. Their praise (or Tiger-Mom pressure) is intended to help, to encourage or push their child to achieve their potential and have a happy life. But the messages we think we’re sending are not always the same as the messages that are received by our children.

What Am I If I’m Not Special?

As we grow up, we develop an image of ourselves. That self-image is largely based on the feedback we get from our parents and the wider world. Golden Children get lots of positive feedback. Sometimes they sense that this feedback is unrealistic. Sometimes they buy into it. Either way, at some point in their lives they’re going to discover that they’re not quite as special as they thought they were, and at that point they’re going to have to figure out who they really are. When you’ve spent your whole childhood hearing people talk about you as though you will someday cure cancer, or become fabulously wealthy, or run a Fortune 500 company, or play in Carnegie Hall, the realization that you’re not who everyone thought you were is shocking and sometimes terrifying.

When it comes to Golden Children, it seems that all that glitters is not gold. Despite what you see on Facebook, life is not easy for anyone. Truly, envy IS the most wasted emotion.


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