The mom's post, seeking advice about her 15-year-old daughter's academic problems, struck a nerve, but not for the reasons you might think. In the Berkeley Parents Network Teens Newsletter, a woman I'll call Worried Mom wrote about how her daughter had a learning disorder and was stressed out. However, I got hung up on something else she wrote -- how her daughter is "not reaching her potential."

The woman was using a phrase that is part of the lexicon of just about every modern parent I know. We moms and dads often talk about wanting our son or daughter to "reach their potential," or expressing the fear that one of our kids, like Worried Mom's daughter, is not reaching that potential.

(Rick Nease/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

This idea about potential usually comes from good intentions. As parents, we believe our kids will be successful in life when they do well at things they are good at. Chasing potential is akin to our all-American pursuit of happiness.

So, why did reading about potential in Worried Mom's note make me shudder? Why does ruminating on it more make me pledge to never again say it in regard to my 15-year-old son?

Well, in certain contexts, the phrase comes off as pretentious. It's a parental twist on what Tina Fey's "30 Rock" crew called "back door bragging" -- slipping something wonderful about yourself, or your kid, into conversation.

Here's a hypothetical scenario: At back-to-school night, a dad regales you with how he pushed administrators into allowing his freshman into AP calculus and third-year French. "I want him to be challenged, to reach his potential," he says. Without obviously boasting, he's just told you how brilliant his kid is.

More often, though, the potential phrase comes with a lot of anxiety-filled subtext. Worried Mom is understandably scared that her daughter is unhappy, and she's also nervous about her daughter's future, because the poor girl is not measuring up to current definitions of teen success. But Mom also sounds disappointed, even defensive, as if she needs to convince readers of her post, and probably herself, that her daughter could be a success.

If only she were reaching her potential.

Whatever that means, because, really, what do any of us mean when we talk about our kids' potential? The phrase is so slippery and self-actualization jargon-y. Some dictionary definitions of the word remind me of how hopeless I was in college philosophy: "Existing in possibility." "Capable of development into actuality."

When I Googled several variations on the phrase, I was faced with pages of articles, blog posts, scholarly reports and marketing content for programs, colleges and pricey summer enrichment programs. An entire industry has grown up around our fears that our kids will lead aimless, miserable lives unless they get expert help in chasing their potential.

In fact, many of these publications use the adjective "full" in front of the p-word. Apparently, it's not enough for kids to reach their potential, they should be working to achieve their full potential, as in a more total, all-encompassing kind.

Actually, what's really irksome about such Internet searches is that they also turn up articles geared toward me. In telling me how I can still discover my "greatness within," I'm reminded of the many roads I have not taken, the many ways that I have probably not done so well in the potential game. It's very tempting to think: I better get my son working on his potential, so he won't end up with regrets like his mom.

The same day I read Worried Mom's post, I happened to hear a 2006 podcast of the NPR radio show "This American Life." The episode focused on a young man named Chauncey Julius from a poor background who got in way over his head in school. He'd shown such amazing leadership potential, and adults predicted that he was destined for great things. He was named governor at the annual Tennessee Boys State conference in 1997 and was photographed shaking the hand of President Bill Clinton. He also won a full scholarship to college, even though his grades were so bad that he failed to get his high school diploma. Once he maneuvered his way into college, he floundered, lost his scholarship and was soon back home, working at a Long John Silver.

When asked why Chauncey choked on his path to success, his high school counselor surmised that she and the other adults around him got carried away. Their impossible expectations had little to do with his reality.

However, the show ended on a hopeful note. Chauncey eventually regained his footing and self-confidence after serving in the Army, where, the reporter said, "Nobody cared about his potential, about what he might do. They only cared about what he actually did."

Potential is a word that brims with so many hopes for our kids and their future, but, as Chauncey's story shows, our hopes can also be a burden.

In any case, how will my son ever know if he ever reaches his potential? I imagine a Promised Land of Realized Potential, where life glows thereafter with accolades, upward mobility, shiny white teeth and inner serenity.

But this isn't real life, where stuff happens, and people's lives sometimes get turned upside down.

In any case, we humans are a restless lot. We suffer from what Buddhists describe as our eternal dissatisfaction with life's impermanence. Now that I think about it, I may have enjoyed brief moments of realized potential -- when I was working on a novel (that I never finished) or after my son was born -- but those moments passed.

And, now I'm back to not realizing my potential. Or maybe I am, just by writing this. I'm not sure. In any case, I'll do my best to not worry about my son's potential and appreciate the amazing person he actually is.

Life Stories is a rotating column by Bay Area News Group writers and editors. Contact staff writer Martha Ross at mross@bayareanewsgroup.com.