You take pride in your appearance and never leave the house without tastefully applied make-up. Your 11-year-old is always unkempt, refuses to shower, hates to go shopping, and has no interest in clothes.
You’re an introvert and need down time every day. Your 4-year-old never stops talking.
You work for a non-profit peace organization. Your 3-year-old turns carrot sticks into guns.
Your partner is a professor and you believe educational achievement is the path to a fulfilling life. Your 9-year-old says he “HATES reading.”
Sometimes our children are completely different from us. They have different tastes, different abilities, and different desires. They don’t want what we want. They don’t care about what we care about. They don’t value what we value. They don’t approach life the way we want them to.
So what do we parents usually do?
We fight every morning about the clothing choices our pre-teen is making, refuse to buy that coveted often-begged-for toy gun, tell our child he “LOVES reading,” and spend a small fortune on tutors and specialists to help our kids. We complain to our friends that our children are “lazy,” lie awake worrying that they will suffer as adults, and try to stuff them into an ill-fitting mold that they did not choose for themselves.
We try to change them. We try to make them more like us.
In high school I babysat for a family I adored. Both parents were psychologists. Their little girl, Rachel, was only five years old but already her mother had started commenting on how much she was eating and scolding her for eating too much. Her daughter wasn’t even chubby. She was a healthy active kid who enjoyed food. “I just don’t want her to have weight problems when she’s older,” the mom confided in me.
What if we didn’t try to change our children to make them more like us, or more like the person we wished we had been in the past? What if we started to take our children on their own terms and let them be themselves? What if we realized that no child’s like or dislikes are set in stone, that sometimes our children’s behavior is simply age appropriate or an indication of what they like or don’t like today, not what they will like or not like for the rest of their lives?
What if Rachel’s mom provided her with a wide variety of healthy foods and never made another comment about what her daughter ate?
What if we decided it’s okay for our pre-teen to dress however she feels most comfortable?
What if we helped our son make himself a toy gun?
What if we stopped labeling our children, criticizing our children, fretting over our children, and instead just loved them unconditionally and let them be themselves?
I have a theory about this: If we stop trying to change and mold our children and start loving them just the way they are then we have to extend the same courtesy to ourselves. But loving ourselves unconditionally is really hard. We’re afraid it will make us soft, or weak, or somehow bad. Cheri Huber, a Zen guru and writer, calls this our psycho-social conditioning. She says conditioning tries to trick us into thinking that we’ll actually die or explode or decombust if we accept ourselves the way we are and love ourselves.
I struggle with this a lot. I have a ticker tape of negative criticism running through my head so constantly that I’m often not aware of it (“I-put-too-much-salt-in-the-soup-and-ruined-it-I-hate-myself-I’m-a-bad-person-I-can’t-believe-what-a-disgusting-mess-this-living-room-is-it’s-my-fault-for-not-making-the-kids-do-more-chores-I-bet-the-editor-hates-my-photos-and-that’s-why-she-didn’t-mention-them…”).
If you feel comfortable with who you are and how you are, chances are you feel comfortable with your child and his preferences and choices.
If you’re consumed with self-hate and full of self-criticism, you probably feel like everything your child does that you don’t like is a negative reflection on you.
It’s true that some children are harder for some adults to parent, and even to love. Some children and adults really are mismatched. It’s also true that there will be times when you really don’t enjoy being with your child–when your daughter’s going through a stage you just can’t stand or your son is acting especially difficult (to you anyway). But even though we sometimes may not like them, our job, I think, is to always love them. To learn to embrace our differences. To let our children spread their wings their own way and fly to the places they want to go. To be the steady branch they can alight on when they come home.
To accept our children unconditionally we have to also accept ourselves.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her latest book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line, will be published by Scribner in April 2013.