I work with children of all ages, across a wide range of socioeconomic classes. I work with boys and girls. I work with children with serious mental illnesses such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bipolar Disorder. I work with children who have a little trouble staying focused at school or keeping their rooms organized. Despite this wide variety of child clients, there is a single most common theme that emerges from the conversations I have with children behind the closed door of my office. I have so many comments, excerpted from these conversations, it is hard to pick which one to share first. I just started with the first one in my journal:
He’s a baseball dad but I’m a ballet boy. It’s tough for him. Elias, age 8
Kids have many ways to tell me that they are not the child their parents expected or wanted. Kids may feel they are not smart enough, athletic enough, musical enough, outgoing enough, or thin enough. Many of these children have lovely, well-meaning parents, but something has gone wrong in the family communication. Rarely do I believe that parents have actually communicated this perceived disappointment overtly. Either it is communicated in very subtle ways, or a child is especially sensitive to such messages, or both. Here are some examples of subtle ways a parent may express disappointment, how a more sensitive child might hear it, and a better way to say it:
Parent says: You sure you don’t want to sign up for baseball this year? Child hears: What’s wrong with you that you don’t want to play sports?
Better way: Whatever you decide is fine by me; I’m just checking in to see if you want to sign up for baseball this season.
Parent says: I think your other black pants are more flattering. Child hears: You look fat in those pants.
Better way: [Say nothing.]
Parent says: Explain to me why you keep getting C’s in Algebra. Child hears: Why can’t you be smarter?
Better way: Algebra’s a bear for you; is there some way I can help?
Generally, there is nothing wrong with any of these comments (although it is probably best for parents of adolescent girls to avoid comments about weight altogether; I’ll blog about this another day). In none of these examples is the parent being overly harsh or critical; however, if comments such as these are part of a larger pattern of communication, the cumulative effect may be a child who questions his parent’s love for him, a child who wishes she could be the daughter her parents wanted.
What every child wants is to be known, valued, and loved by his parents for the entire person that he is, for her unique combination of personality traits, quirks, skills, weaknesses, gifts, passions, etc. It is common for parents to say of their child, “She’s such a great kid; if only she didn’t struggle so with reading.” Or, “Everybody loves my son; I just wish he weren’t such a worrier.” What I tell parents who make these comments is that, even if I could, I would not magically eliminate any one part of their child that they or their child find challenging because it is an integral part of who the child is. If you could erase a child’s struggle with reading or his tendency to worry, then other aspects of his character and personality would also change. A child who struggles to read may learn the value of persistence and asking for help. There are some aspects to being a worrier that are adaptive in life; the goal is to teach a child to manage her worry, not to erase it from her personality. If you eliminate the challenge, then you change the child. You might end up with a really great kid, but it won’t be the one you love now.
I read very few blogs, but there are two that have totally captured my attention and my heart. Both are written by mothers who are raising “gender-nonconforming” sons. What I love about these two moms is how they are embracing their beautiful little boys in their entirety – pink tights, lipstick, baby dolls and all! I think they serve as a model to all parents because they are not saying of their boys “He’s such a great kid; if only he could be more masculine” or “if only he didn’t like girlie things.” And these two moms are doing all of this great mothering in the face of terrible prejudice, often fearing for their sons’ safety out in the world. There is a lot we can learn from them. Definitely check out their blogs at http://raisingmyrainbow.com/about/ and http://hesparkles.wordpress.com/about/.
Little Elias was not a gender-nonconforming boy; he was just a boy who loved ballet and had no interest in sports. His father, a truly great guy in so many ways, was finding it hard to relate to Elias because he knew nothing of ballet and, to be honest, he felt he was missing out on the fun of coaching his son on the diamond. Dad had brought Elias to therapy because he believed their relationship was suffering the effects of divorce. He wasn’t feeling close to his son even though he shared custody with his ex-wife and had Elias with him 50% of the time. Through many conversations with this very charming little boy, I discovered that the divorce was not the whole story. Elias knew his father loved him but he also believed his father was disappointed in him. He believed his father longed for a different kind of boy. Once this came to light, it was fairly easy to turn things around in their relationship. Dad was able to tell Elias honestly that he did sometimes feel disappointed that he didn’t get to coach a baseball team but that he loves Elias exactly the way he is. Dad even offered to take a ballet class to prove his openness to his son, but Elias just laughed at that idea. After all, Elias understood that he has a “baseball dad” and didn’t need his father to be anything other than who he is.
[Names and all potentially identifying information have been changed.]