Accepting Your Children For Who They Are

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An interview with Andrew Solomon

Accepting your children for who they are can be difficult. In some cases, parents live vicariously through their children’s successes. Others have a vision for the life their child will lead and struggle when s/he can’t or won’t fulfill that fantasy. My own parents weren’t thrilled with my desire to become a fashion designer. Instead, their dream was for me to use my talents to be a “real” artist. This inability to understand and accept me was a painful one and ultimately caused a rift, taking time to repair. Understanding and accepting who your children are, as opposed to who you want them to be is fundamental to being a connected parent.

I asked Andrew Solomon, award-winning author of Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and The Search for Identity to share his thoughts on this subject. – Gina Osher, The Twin Coach, TMC Contributor

How can parents come to terms with the fact that the vision they have for their children does not match how the children are turning out?

All parenting involves striking a balance between changing your child and accepting your child. Those are two disparate objectives. We change our children in a thousand ways: we educate them; we teach them manners and character; we vaccinate them; we toilet train them and show them how to brush their teeth. We also need to recognize the qualities in them that are immutable: their basic personality and character, their sexuality, their intelligence.

Parents are constantly in what I’ve called the Serenity Prayer bind, trying to figure out what aspects of their child to change and what aspects to accept.  It is often impossible to tell the difference. Parents should understand, however, that they need to achieve love and recognition, and that while love comes, ideally, at birth, recognition takes time. Parents whose children are different from them must consider the child’s interests ahead of their own, and do what they can to ensure that their child has a worthy, joyful, impassioned life, even if that life veers away from the parents’ ideals.

Some parents seem to experience their child’s difference as a narcissistic injury—they see it as changing who they, the parents, are. They don’t see it as the child’s experience separate from them. Of course, our identity is dramatically shifted by our children, so there is a level at which it’s true that children are altering our selves, but we need to avoid seeing the change as primarily a change in us, and to see it, instead, as an essential matter for our children.

What are the best ways for parents to connect with their children when their temperament is markedly different from their own?

The first step for such parents is self-education. Parents should learn about the issue involved. If the child has a dramatic difference or a disability, there is much to be learned. It’s often useful to find parent groups dealing with the same challenge.  The company of others helps to clarify the situation, and the stories people tell about bridging the gap can be transformative. The most important thing, however, is to assure this different child that he or she is deeply beloved, to describe and acknowledge the variation in temperament, and to make the child a partner in finding a language in which to understand such difference.

What questions should parents ask themselves to know whether they are truly accepting of their child just as he or she is?

I think of the father of a transgender daughter who was in a counseling session. The therapist asked, “Does it make your child happy for you to persist in calling her he?” The father said it did not. The therapist asked, “Would it make your child happy if you called her she?” The father said it would. The therapist said, “What is it that’s more important to you than your child’s happiness?” I think parents have to ask themselves all the time what their child’s interests are and how they as parents can serve those interests. They have to think constantly of how their ego needs differ from their child’s, and to look at whether their behavior will result in their child’s optimal outcome.

When you have one child who has much higher needs than another, how can parents avoid comparisons and instead love each child for their own unique personalities?

There is a way of loving the easier child because s/he is easier, but there is also a way of loving the more difficult child because responding to that child’s needs can be a part of the bonding process. Parents always compare their children, but the trick is to recognize the virtue in each child, and to respond to each on his or her own terms. You don’t love all your children the same; you love them differently. But you should love them equally even if differently—they may conjure different responses, but they should know they are of equal value. While the interests of one may be placed ahead of the interests of the other in any given situation, the overall interests of both children should receive equal accommodation.

How can parents find balance when their own wishes and dreams for what their child could be or do are greatly different from their children’s own wishes and dreams?

This is the opening salvo of my book: “When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads. In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own.

Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.”

As it turns out, there is a lot more imagination in the world than one might think. A parent’s wishes and dreams are not the responsibility of their children. Parents often need to mold their children; if your child is murderous, you try to teach him kindness. But you do so by treating him with kindness, which involves leading by example. You can seduce your children into being closer to your wishes and dreams, but you can’t browbeat them into that condition. It’s morally wrong and it doesn’t work.

How can parents let their children know they are and will always be loved and accepted, no matter what?

That’s really a question about how we express love. Last night, I did a book signing at a university in Michigan. At the end, one female student came up to me and said that her mother hadn’t spoken to her since she came out as gay. Another came up to me and asked me to sign a book to her mother in which I thanked the mother for her great acceptance of the daughter’s being gay. So there were the two opposite models bumping into each other, and I found myself sad for the first mother as well as angry, and full of admiration for the second. The first no longer had a relationship with her own daughter. The second had not only given her daughter a necessary confidence and feeling of acceptability, but had also strengthened their relationship.

How sad it would be to bring a child up and then not have a relationship with that child afterwards. It’s a loss from both sides. Children can tell whether they are loved or not, and whether they are accepted or not. Tell them from the start that you will love them for who they are, whoever that may be, and repeat it all the time. Be awake to who they are; feeling seen is an essential part of feeling loved. And try to empathize with their differences, and to experience those differences on their terms rather than your own.

Andrew Solomon is a writer and lecturer on politics, culture, and psychology. His most recent book, the New York Times bestseller Far From the Tree, has won 12 national awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award. His last book, The Noonday Demon, won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. He lives in New York and London with his husband and son.

This article was originally published September 26, 2013


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