Our Children, Themselves
See if this scenario resonates with you: A family comes into my office with a young child in tow. He just isn’t the way his parents thought he would be or think he should be. He’s too quiet or too loud or too shy or too spirited or too passive. His parents would like me to fix him...quickly please. I’m not talking about true medical diagnoses that need addressed, perhaps with counseling or medications. I’m talking about personality characteristics such as introversion or natural exuberance or traits that fall out of gender or cultural norms. In short, I’m talking about the very essence of who our children are.
You may be shaking your head at this scenario but unfortunately, it’s not hypothetical or even unusual. Many of my office visits involve a conversation just like this. Sometimes the parents are irritated or even angry and I have had more than one child called a harsh name (“brat” seems to be a popular choice) right in front of them. Oftentimes the parents are at a loss and truly desperate for solutions for whatever is “wrong” with their child. Sometimes the parents are matter of fact and barely look up from their smart phones as they rattle off their to-do list for me: Make our child less...make our child more…
My approach is always the same. I simply ask the parents to stop. Just stop and look at their child’s face because what I see there is very telling. The younger ones watch their parents with wide eyes and seem confused by their parents’ disapproval of who they are at their core. I have watched a child as young as three years old seemingly fold in on himself as his parents vehemently demanded that I “fix” his spirited personality. The older ones appear hurt or annoyed; this is an old song and dance to them by this point.
Now, I know that much of these conversations are born from a (misplaced, albeit) loving place. As parents, we feel enormous responsibility to mold our children into the best versions of ourselves. Here’s the thing, though--it’s actually so much simpler than we make it. You see, our children are not really extensions of ourselves. Bear with me. They are given to us whole: they are unique, flawed, beautiful humans, complete in themselves. When it comes to these types of personality conflicts (which is often what we’re talking about here) or preconceived expectations, our only job as their parents (please pause and really take this in) is to love and accept them, just as they are. They don’t actually belong to us in this regard. It is not our place to “fix” them or dial them back or make them more or make them less. It is actually freeing to realize this. Now you are free to sit back and enjoy your children, noticing and appreciating all their unique quirks and differences from you.
I have a theory that children are given the unique personalities and gifts they need to survive in this world. My feistiest patients are more often than not NICU graduates--their spunkiness likely helped them survive in their early days and you probably have a leader, a trail blazer, or a revolutionary on your hands. Your highly sensitive child has unique gifts for reasons you probably can’t even imagine yet--the world needs her empathy and soulfulness. She certainly doesn’t need her pediatrician to help her “toughen up.” You always envisioned a ballerina and yet you have a soccer player--excellent! You are now a #SoccerMom.
To illustrate my point, I will tell you about two patients of mine. One was brought to me because her parents felt she was too masculine and they wanted that to be addressed. She ultimately became severely depressed and struggled in her relationships with her parents and others. The other child was a little boy who liked to play with dolls. When the grocery store clerk commented, saying, “Your little boy plays with dolls?” his mother answered with a firm and proud, “Yep.” That little boy grew up without even realizing that there could be limits placed upon his interests and therefore found his own way with more happiness and joy than you can imagine.
Embrace your children, parents. Just as they are, without conditions, without boundaries. I believe the cure to much of the world’s hurts begins in our very own homes, with parents who let go of expectations and truly celebrate (not just accept) their own children.