Yesterday, I met a friend at a coffee shop. We had been trying to get together for months but the busyness of our lives kept getting in the way, so it was really great to sit down with her and catch up. My friend and I have a lot in common. We each have 8th and 10th graders who go to the same school. She knits, I knit. She writes a blog about parenting (Mom Squad – you should check it out; it is filled with wisdom and humor); I write a blog about parenting. My friend is a middle school teacher so she really understands kids. I am a child psychologist, so, hopefully, I do too. Naturally, our children – their quirks, their triumphs, their challenges, their maddening moments, our love for them, our fears about them, our hopes for their futures – were woven throughout our conversation while we sipped coffee and nibbled scones.
As I drove away from the coffee shop and headed to school to pick my kids up, I thought about a theme that recurred over and over during the hour my friend and I spent together. I am still thinking about it this morning. It is the idea that children are complex compilations of gifts, challenges, moods, temperaments, birth orders, genetics, experiences, interests, preferences, aversions, etc. (This list could go on quite a while.) It is the unique compilation of all of those factors that makes each individual child who he or she is. And to truly love and accept a child means to love and accept the whole kit-and-caboodle.
This is a theme that comes up frequently in therapy. Sometimes, it presents itself like a Thanksgiving turkey on a silver platter. As a mother is telling me about her son, she makes a comment such as
He is such a great kid. If only he weren’t so hard on himself.
Sometimes, it is much more subtle like a seasoning that you can’t quite name until you have eaten most of the entrée. For example, a father I saw for therapy following his divorce spent a lot of time talking about the various ways he was finding his daughter challenging to parent, but when he described her, I pictured a smart, attractive, social, well-behaved teenager. For a long time, I could not understand the problem. Finally, it hit me; what Dad had been telling me all along was
She is such a great kid. If only she weren’t so much like her mother.
Think about your own experience. Think of all the various factors that made you who you are. Think for a moment about where you fall in the birth order. Think about any challenges, such as learning problems, losses, or medical issues you had to deal with growing up. What roles did these factors play in forming your personality and your character? Now imagine that you could change your birth order or you could undo one or more of those challenges. Even imagine that you could be much taller or shorter than you are, more athletic, less musically inclined, a red-head instead of a brunette. If you could change one or more of these things about yourself, what would that mean for your personality? Your character? Your identity?
Just as an example, take birth order. I was the youngest, by 5 years, in a sibship of four. The oldest, a boy, was born to 20-year-old parents, one in college, struggling to make ends meet. They had been married less than a year and had no child-rearing experience. As a first-born, my brother received full-time attention until the second child was born. Almost 10 years later, when I was born, they were 30, had lots of experience parenting their 9-, 7-, and 5-year-olds, and were financially established. The household I joined was bustling and noisy. I was doted on by big siblings, and my mother could not devote all of her parenting energy to me. It is often said about siblings that they are born into different households, and my experience illustrates that truth.
Now imagine that I had been born first. My experience would have been totally different. As a result of this one change, aspects of my personality and character would be different. Perhaps I would be more selfish, less liberal, more comfortable with conflict, or less drawn to young children. Who knows? I certainly don’t, but I am quite confident that this one change would mean that I would be different person.
Think about your own children. Imagine little Susie. What if she didn’t have juvenile diabetes? She might be both more free-spirited and less self-disciplined. And teenaged Johnny; what if he didn’t have such a passion for jazz guitar? He might spend more time on academics and make better grades, but he wouldn’t know the joy of creating and entertaining. And what if Mary had never struggled with addiction. Clearly, her life would have been easier, but she may not be so skilled in her work as a psychologist in a college setting.
On your toughest days as a parent, in those dark moments when you see your child struggling to make friends, or pass geometry, or overcome depression, when you are tempted to reject some aspect of your child’s personality or character, remind yourself that loving him means accepting his social difficulties, his academic weaknesses, his mood disorder. When you are tempted to be critical or invalidating or say something you will undoubtedly regret, remind yourself that your daughter is a whole person and that rejecting any part of her is rejecting that person.
I write this post to remind parents, myself included, of the importance of embracing everything our children are – the good, the bad, and the ugly. While it is certainly not always easy, doing so means stronger parent-child relationships. It likely means children with a stronger sense of self-acceptance as well.