Parenting The Child You Have

FatherSonWe have to talk.

This parenting thing, it’s a tough job.  Don’t we know it.

Some say that having a child is like walking around for the rest of your life with your heart outside your body.  Yeah, kinda.

One thing I know for sure.  None of us get through it without pain and struggle.  And fear.  And worry.  And disappointment.  But mostly pain.  Because all of those other things I just listed…they cause pain and struggle.  Of course, hopefully there are far more joyful moments than struggle.  But we do ourselves a disservice when we imagine that it can all be happiness and ease.  So we need to talk about it.

As most regular readers of this group know, I’m not a religious person.  So you might be surprised when I say that I have a book (or two) that I sometimes refer to as my “bible.”  It’s not important what the book is (and besides, if I told you, you’d just think I’m weird or morbid or both, and you’d probably be right).  The thing that’s important is that it was my introduction to Buddhist ideas, though it’s not a book about Buddhism (and I’m not Buddhist.)  What’s important is what’s in the book, the stories and pearls of great wisdom that I carry with me throughout my days and that inform my life as a parent and my work as a parent coach.

The biggest among these wisdoms is that pain comes from resistance.

Pain Comes From Resistance.  Struggle comes from wishing things were otherwise.

I don’t know if there is any lesson more valuable in our lives as parents–and in our journey to be respectful and unconditional in our interactions–than this one.

So, you’re saying that if I stop resisting, parenting won’t be a struggle?  So, you’re saying that I should give in to my toddler in order to avoid the pain of tantrums (for both of us)?  So, you’re saying that I’m creating all of the things that are difficult about parenting, and none of it is my child, my spouse, the media, or pressure from others?

No.  I’m not saying any of those things.  In fact, I’m saying quite the opposite.  I’m talking about parenting the child you have.

There is plenty about parenting that is and will be a struggle.  There are wishes and dreams and visions and plans and oh-so-many-things that we wish for our children from the moment they are born–from before they are born–and throughout their lifetimes.  We wish they would do it differently.  We wish we could confer upon them some of the wisdom we have accumulated from life experience.  We wish they could see into the future and see how “this” will benefit them “then.”  And sometimes–yes, sometimes for all of us–we not only wish they would do it differently, we wish they were made differently (never mind the fact that for many of us, we made them.)

No one is immune.  A few personal examples.

Now, I’ve been in this whole child development business from well before my daughter was born.  I know how it works.  I know about temperament and the way in which it is inborn and exceptionally stable over a lifetime.  I know about respect, and about the way in which our children, from the very start, are full and complete and independent beings (even as they are dependent on us) with their own paths.  I know about the heritability of anxiety and depression.   I know about the power of observation, of following our children’s leads, at being their support and noticing and nurturing and encouraging them in the things that they love and are drawn toward.  I know about the critical nature of the first year of life for attachment, the first three years of life for brain development, the transition from the mind of a preschooler to the mind of middle childhood.  I know that adolescence is a time of breaking away, with many of the characteristics of toddlerhood reappearing in new and perplexing forms.  I know about the critical balance between strong leadership and tender, flexible, and empathic warmth in relationship.  I know about apologizing to our children, accepting our own imperfections as parents, and the importance of laughter and play in daily life.  I know not to take myself too seriously

And yet.  Still.

My daughter, now a teen, is by nature, an introvert (as am I.)  Her other parent is the polar opposite–a master of extroversion.  Introversion (which is vastly misunderstood) and extroversion are notably stable traits–that is, they don’t really change over the course of a lifetime.  We can train ourselves to behave differently and find coping strategies that help us to survive and thrive when the world calls upon us to do other than what comes naturally…but it’s hard work and we remain constitutionally the same.

When she was little, we had our dreams for her, like all of us do.  One parent hoped she would be very social, to greet strangers warmly from a young age, to smile in the photos, to chat with shopkeepers and strangers on the street, to seek out and make friends with anyone and everyone.  Because it’s “good for her.”  One parent was happy with her quiet and reserved nature, and defended it, but then worried when she seemed to struggle with making friends or complained about how no one liked her.  I saw her part in it–how she was uncomfortable, how she didn’t “join” the social scene–and I wished something different for her.  And yes, I sometimes wished for her to be different.  We both did.  For her, mind you.  Not for us.  For her.  Or so we tell ourselves.

From the time that my daughter was two or three, it became clear that she had near perfect pitch.  She sang beautifully.  Fully.  Strongly.  With a natural vibrato–not too big, not too small.  A Broadway voice, even as a young child.  Observe.  Notice.  Nurture your child’s natural talents and strengths. Okay.  Lots of old Hollywood musicals, stage plays, Broadway music.  Check.  Musical theater camp–mostly a bust (one great one, but only for three weeks each summer.)  Voice lessons–worked for a short time.  Reading music–so important–nope, resistance.  Why don’t you try out for the school play?  You’re so good at this.  You should join a chorus.  Or an a capella group.  How about the talent show?  Why don’t you let people fully see and hear how you can sing?  How can you sing like Ethel Merman at home and not let anyone see that power and skill anywhere else?  Did you not notice people’s eyes pop during your solo at the camp show?    Even now, today, I sit here in my living room, still wishing she would sing out.

It is not what she wants to do.  It is not where she wants to put her energy.  She loves to sing.  She sings all day.  Non-stop.  Relatively involuntarily.  I am the lucky beneficiary. Lately,  I think of and gain comfort from the words from a wonderful old Harry Chapin song “Mr. Tanner”:

Music was his life, it was not his livelihood.
And it made him feel so happy, and it made him feel so good
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul
He did not know how well he sang.  It just made him whole.

She knows her path.  My path is to learn to trust that she knows her path.

I could go on.   You know, you really should take these classes because they will be important later.  You know, college admissions officers really want to see you doing some powerful volunteer work.  Being on a sports team is an important way to learn to work with others. 

There are things that I imagined.  There are things that I “wanted” (quotes intentional).  There are assumptions that I made.  Looking forward to going to Disney World or the local carnival, laughing and screaming on the rides.  Going backpacking together. Instilling a spirit of adventure and risk taking.  Utter spontaneity  Swimming at the beach (my favorite place in the world) all day, reading in a hammock and then swimming again.  Concerts.  My daughter as the one who always has her nose in a book, everywhere she goes.  Unschooling.  Living out of a bus, traveling the world.  Museums.   Seeing my daughter the nuclear physicist singing her heart out at Carnegie Hall. (ha ha–hey, who says you can’t be more than one great thing.)

Reading this list makes me laugh now.  These are my dreams.  They are not her dreams.  These things are me.  They are not her.  I have had to–no, not had to…been privileged to–learn who she is (and has always been, by the way), what she loves.  It’s not always easy for me to remember that that’s the idea here.

She is a scientist and mathematician.  She thinks of things I would never think of in a million years.  She is highly suggestible.  She is an artist, a singer, a deep thinker.  She is a great and loyal friend (she figured out the whole friendship thing just beautifully in her own way and time.)  She is intensely empathic. She has a fierce sense of justice.  She is generous and kind and wonderful with children.

She doesn’t like amusement parks.  She doesn’t like concerts.  She doesn’t have her nose in a book.  She doesn’t like camping.  She is risk-averse.  She loves school and has never been willing to consider homeschooling or unschooling–she thinks I’m beyond weird for liking it.   She doesn’t really care for the beach (except for tropical locations).

There are places where our interests overlap.  We both love travel–nearly endless travel, in the best of worlds.  I love to camp and she loves fine hotels.  We are both willing to compromise and do a little of both.  We both love music-much of the same music, yes, even as she is a teenager.  We both value education and we both think outside the box–in different ways.  We’re both curious. We’re both funny and we both love to laugh.   We’re both goofy as all get out.  We both want to learn about and share what the other loves, with the normal exception made for the perfectly normal “Mom, you’re old” things (and vice versa.)

One of us is an adult and as such, is able to remember that resistance and not liking things is the job of the child.  One of us is a parent, and as such, is (at least theoretically) better able to delay gratification, and by doing so, make sacrifices.  It doesn’t always have to be about me.

Sometimes, like any of us, I forget.  And sometimes, in my arrogance, I think I keep these thoughts well hidden.  And then, tensions rise (for one reason or another), and I get critical…and then I hear it come out of her mouth:  “I’m sorry that I’m not the kid you wanted.”  It is a serious punch to the gut.  It makes me cry even to write it on this page.  When those words emerge, it is too late to say “you are the child I want”, even if it’s true.  Because they’ve heard it–even if you didn’t say it.  If I could wish anything for you, it would be that you never hear those words.  If i could undo any and everything I have ever done that has sent her the message that she’s “wrong” or “bad” or “not enough”–even in small ways–I would.

In my work as a parenting coach, I encounter a lot of parents who are overwhelmed and frustrated and seeking solutions.  I see and hear a lot of pain and a lot of struggle, and I so wish them relief.  I see a lot of people whose experience of their children and parenting does not match what they thought it would be like (it happens to most of us.)  I see a lot of people whose children are not the way they imagined their children or family would be, or the ways that they want them to be (it also happens to most of us.)  Some things are, indeed, “problems” that can be addressed or “fixed.”  Some of them are not.  Some of those changes reside in the children.  Far more of those changes reside in us.  Because we are the grown-ups.

A huge part of successful stress reduction in parenting is about coming to terms with the people that our children are and adjusting to these remarkable, different-than-us people that we have invited into our lives, and letting go of the idea that we really have such power to shape who they are and what they like. The work is in learning not to resist who they are, because–remember–that is where the struggle arises.  There are things we can expect of them.  And we can work on those things.  And there are things they cannot do and will not do and ways they simply “are not.”  Our attempts to change them into the children we imagine or create the family “scene” that we imagine is a perfect recipe for maximum frustration and exhaustion.

We are big on talking to one another about how to deal with children who “always want it to be their way” and how “they need to understand that they’re not the center of the universe and that things won’t always happen they way they want them to.”  We spend a lot less time recognizing that, as parents, we ourselves often want things to be our way and that things won’t always happen the way we want them to. We think that we get to have that now, we’ve “earned” it as adults or parents.  Except that’s not the way it works.

Raising children is not about a picture out of a magazine or a scene out of a movie or the family we wish we had had when we were children. When our children are born, we imagine that day in the future when we’ll all wander down to the town fair and get snow cones and sit out and watch fireworks together, and bond as a family.  Maybe that will happen. Maybe it won’t.  It depends who our children are–and what happens to them (and us) over the course of their lifetimes, some of which is out of our control. Not everything is up to us.

We can share what we love with our children, but we cannot make them other than who they are.  We can model all that we want them to be, and they will “take what they like and leave the rest.”  Much of what we model, they will absorb from us, consciously or otherwise–but they will do so in their own way and on their own timetable, which is inevitably not the timetable we had in mind. We can try to change their timetable–though it usually doesn’t work, and is often received as disrespectul.  We can correct the mistakes of our past (or the mistakes we think our parents made), we can do things differently, yes, but with the knowledge that our children are not us as children.  Each is a whole and new person.

Our children are not repositories.  They teach us who they are, not the other way around.

Where do you see this struggle in your life with your children?  What are you wanting from your children that you are not getting?  Is it something that can be gotten?  Or is it an opportunity for you to let go of your version of how it should be and accept them as they are, making adaptations when necessary?  Or a bit of both?  Is there a particular point of great power struggle with your children?  Can you step back and see if there is something that you are not recognizing or honoring about who they are and move toward compromise?

A reminder:  all of our children’s behaviors are about communicating something.  Yes.  All.  They are trying to tell you who they are and what they need.  What can you learn from your child today?  What can you allow them to teach you about who they are, as separate and different from you?  Do they need more space?  More closeness?  Less activity?  More structure?  Firmer limits?  More physical connection?  More advance notice?  Slower transition times?  Less noise?  More time to run and climb and shriek?

Practice it today.  Take a moment that is frustrating for you, and use it to learn who your child is.  Make the conscious choice to “hear” frustrating behavior as the communication that it is, as a doorway into understanding them.

Reframe.  Reduce the resistance.

And then let us know what you found out, okay?


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