We live in a day and age when most civilized cultures encourage the idea of individuals becoming whatever they want to be. After thousands of years of children growing up in families where they had no choice but to follow in their parent’s footsteps or take over the family business, it is liberating to know that our own children won’t be so fettered by traditions of the past.
Or will they?
It’s naive to suppose that children today are always encouraged to become who and what they want to be. We might collectively believe this in theory, but do we really encourage it in our homes and families? Think about it. If your children are still young and easily influenced by you, you are most likely trying to persuade them to your way of life. And rightly so! What else is the purpose of motherhood than to “train up a child in the way he/she should go”? And quite happily, most deliberate parents of all religions and world views agree on the fundamentals of “the way” children should go. Among other commonly held values, we want them to be kind, compassionate, honest, hard working, and successful in an endeavor that brings them joy while contributing to the greater world.
But let’s be honest. Beyond that, most of us also want our children to like the things we like. It’s fun to think of them as a “chip of the old block” or a “mini me”. It’s natural for us to assume that our children–especially those who technically carry our DNA–will be enough like us that our relationship with them will be instinctive and effortless. And it’s likewise understandable that we assume they will share the same interests and hobbies as us simply by virtue of growing up in our home.
But as many parents know, children often come “pre-wired” and aren’t anything like us at all. We are outgoing, they are shy and reserved. We are cerebral and love the arts, they are physical and obsessed with sports. We crave order, cleanliness, and a schedule, they are free spirits who leave a mess where ever they go. (To give just a few limited examples.) Combine this with the “generation gap” that comes from the rapid speed with which our culture is shifting and changing, and it may take more work than some parents anticipate to have a close, connected relationship with their child.
Setting aside the obviously difficult disappointment of a child choosing a completely different life path in terms of faith or world view (and I suppose profession is still an issue for some), I’d like to address the much easier to swallow objective of simply accepting and loving our children who have very different personality traits and interests than us, and letting go of the expectations we may have invested in them. I think if we can start there, that if or when a child does consider taking a very different path from us in a higher stakes arena, we will (at worst) be able to weather the transition with the relationship still in tact, and (at best) have more ability to persuade them than a parent who gave up on having a close relationship with them a long time ago.
I want to have this conversation for two reasons: 1) My oldest 17-year-old daughter is very different from me in terms of personality and interests, and it’s been a learning process for both of us as I’ve figured out how to best love and accept her for who she is. This has been very important for both of us. 2) As my friends’ children also continue to age, I am hearing more and more stories of parent/child conflicts as well as children struggling emotionally because they don’t feel they “fit the mold” created for them by their parents and/or the culture around them. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I’d like to suggest three things to consider if you find yourself in this situation of having a child very different from you.
- Self-awareness. Identify your personal biases and preferences based on your history and personality, and recognize them for what they are: personal biases and preferences. I grew up in a somewhat blue collar Midwest community in the 70’s and 80’s that didn’t place huge emphasis on female education and leadership. Looking back, I felt like my biggest ego strokes came from being pretty and popular, so that’s what I tried to do. I was a cheerleader, the Homecoming Princess, and I participated in dance and drama. Not that there is anything wrong with any of these things, but I’ve gone out of my way to raise my girls with a broader vision of the opportunities open to them, and have especially emphasized the value of education. But did I expect my oldest daughter to shun all things “pretty and popular”? No, I wasn’t ready for that, and I spent many frustrating years (for both of us) trying to get her to be as vain and egocentric as I was in high school and “put herself out there”. (I didn’t always understand that’s what I was doing and that my efforts were more about me than her.) The reality is, that’s not who she is. She beats to her own drum and doesn’t give a whit about what other people think of her, and now that I’ve come to really understand and appreciate her for who she is, I respect her so much for seeing through the artificiality that often comes with high school and determining to put her time and energy into the things that matter most to her.
- Culture-awareness. I also think it’s important for parents to understand what the cultural expectations are in our communities along with the pressure our children may feel to “fit in” to boxes where they don’t quite belong, and seek ways to alleviate that pressure by supporting them in their unique strengths and interests. We moved from the extremely diverse Los Angeles area (where everyone happily did their own thing) to the much more homogeneous Mountain West four years ago. Needless to say, there is a subtle yet palpable feeling here that there is a pretty clear path to success, which looks, talks, dresses, and acts a certain way. This seems to be more common in parts of the country that are fairly homogeneous (as was true in my Midwest community growing up), and while I think it’s better now than it was for my generation, I also think there’s still a lot we can do to change this attitude simply being aware of the cultural undertones in our communities and having conversations with our kids about it. For example, we live in a rather sports obsessed community, and my only son is decidedly NOT “sporty” in the traditional sense of the word (football, basketball, soccer). He likes to snowboard and play golf, and he is the first chair cellist in his middle school’s advanced orchestra (one of very few boys in the orchestra as a whole), but much like with my daughter, I pressured him for years to try the more traditional, competitive, team sports. (Again, these so called “issues” are often more about the parent.) But it’s just not him, and I am so glad I finally stopped trying to make him fit in with “everybody else” and just let him get involved in the things that truly interest him and fit his personality.
- Support in action, not just theory. Part of what makes my daughter unique is her incredible artistic ability and her interest in all things anime. (She hopes to go into animation someday.) So naturally, she was all about attending the Comic Convention in Salt Lake City two weekends ago. Incidentally, it was also Homecoming at her high school that weekend, and while I would have most definitely liked to see her enjoy something that was so fun for me at her age (I would have rather DIED than miss Homecoming!), I wholeheartedly supported her efforts to attend knowing how happy it made her. She spent a lot of time and a good deal of her hard earned money creating an incredibly creative costume to wear (it’s called “cosplay” and it’s a huge part of the convention), and she was smiling for days after the event. Interestingly, in the comments section of an article on the local newspaper’s website about the convention, I noticed someone made the ignorant remark that they just didn’t “get” grown adults who dress up like superheroes, and how concerned they were that these people were voting for our elected officials. Thankfully, the very next comment noted how they just didn’t “get” adults who paint their faces and spend hundreds of dollars and countless hours screaming their heads off at sporting events, and how concerned they were that these people were voting for our elected officials. You see?
We obviously all still have a long way to go when it comes to thinking outside of our own little life paradigms about what is “cool”, what defines “success”, what is an “acceptable” use of time and talent, and so on. The truth is, we’re probably not as unfettered by the traditions of the past as we like to think. One thing is for sure, we can all be a little more accepting of people with different interests and personalities than us, and most definitely when those people are our children.
QUESTION: Do you have a child who is very different from you? How have you developed a close relationship with them despite your different personalities and interests?
CHALLENGE: If you’re struggling to “get” one of your own children, spend a little time thinking about these three suggestions and try to find a way to show them that you love and accept them just the way they are.
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