Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
~ Kahlil Gibran
By the time my second child was born I had learned a few things.
In fact, I’d learned so much that I remember literally turning around in a panic in the middle of my kitchen yelling, “Oh my God, where’s the baby!”
That fraction of a second lasted until I discovered her peacefully sleeping in the cradle right next to me—where I had obviously put her down without even noticing it. It was so instinctual at this point as to be seamless. Needless to say, that wasn’t how it was with my first child.
The beauty of having more than one child is that we get to see, irrevocably and unmistakably, that people are different from one another. We may also discover that respecting those differences is actually the key component to keeping kids intact, though we don’t need two kids (or more) to do that.
When we have a child it’s like we don’t know if we’ve been handed an acorn, a strawberry seed or an egg. We are definitely holding something that we care about and that will grow, but the question is—into what?
For me this was made ridiculously obvious because I birthed completely different children. They have different temperaments, strengths, desires, challenges, and yes, even appearances. One is dark haired, brown-eyed and introspective; the other is blond haired, blue-eyed and effervescent.
One is bookish, academic and creative; the other is physical, straightforward and huge-hearted.
So how do we keep our unique, and unknowable children intact? By doing three things.
>> Trust them.
>> Discover the particular “soil” in which they thrive.
>> Give up attachment to who they become.
Although my children are radically different from one another in almost every way, the principles to care for them are actually the same. Ultimately what it comes down to is simple: honor who they are, not who I think they are—or want them to be.
1. Trust your child.
When my youngest was in pre-school she complained of having a tummy ache one morning. I wondered if she just didn’t want to go to school, noticing that she seemed otherwise okay, and brought her to school anyway. When I shared this with her teacher she responded kindly, “We’ll take good care of her. Here, at this school, we believe them.”
That simple statement rocked my world.
I realized that I believed that I should question people’s motives, including my children’s, and even my own. For the first time I saw the power of just trusting my child. It was also a huge relief. I didn’t have to figure anything out anymore—including things that I couldn’t possibly know, like how someone else’s tummy feels.
I saw that trusting my child was a prerequisite for her to trust herself.
It was also the first step in me trusting myself.
And what if she was, in fact, fabricating an illness in order to avoid school? Well, that’s something I would want to address honestly, rather than forcing her to go to school or not believing her. If she didn’t want to go to school that much, and didn’t feel safe to tell me why, then the real issue is how to ensure that she feels safe enough to talk to me—which might also be remedied by trusting her more.
The tip here is this: Believe your child. When they are young it’s relatively simple. If they are crying, they probably need comfort or food or to be warmed up or unwrapped. If they are older, trust that they are communicating something worthy and important of being heard. They are attempting to share their needs and perceptions, however they are able to convey it. If it’s convoluted or deceptive it might be because they don’t expect to be trusted, they don’t feel safe, or they may not trust you. They may fear your reaction.
Trusting and honoring their basic needs and goodness is the first step.
2. Discover the “soil” they need to thrive in.
Acorns, strawberry seeds and eggs all need different environments in which to grow. What does your child need in order to thrive?
The truth is that you don’t really know and sometimes it keeps changing. The trick here is to connect with your child’s uniqueness and face the fact that they are different from you.
My older daughter started playing the piano at age three, and neither her father nor I play an instrument. A friend brought over a dulcimer when she was seven and she immediately put hammer to strings, playing the same piano tunes on the dulcimer that she had taught herself on the piano. I could no more do that now than she did at age seven.
Clearly, what supported and nurtured this child was different than what supported me. What supported her, in part, was a richness of environment—even one that went well beyond what I myself could do or imagine.
For my second child, respecting her timing seemed to be her nurturing soil. She was deeply frustrated at being taught how to read an analog clock when she was young and started banging herself on the head saying she was “stupid.” A few years later (and much later than most schools would expect her to know it), she got curious and asked me to teach her how to read a clock. In 15 minutes we covered the whole thing and she said, “Well, that was easy!”
The tip here is to realize that your child’s rich, nutrient soil may not be the same as your own, or even your partner’s or what anyone tells you to expect. Children are their own unique, never-before-unveiled beings, and your job is to find what they, themselves, find life-giving. You’ll know it by the fact that they light up and love it!
Just be prepared to be continually surprised by whatever it is, or isn’t.
3. Give up attachment to who they become.
Mozart died penniless at a relatively young age. I don’t advocate for it or wish it upon anyone, including my children, but it is a good example of how we cannot know what their path will be, no matter who they are.
As parents we tend to do one, or both, of two things: we project what we want for ourselves onto our child and push, cajole and manipulate them into it; or we see talent and interest in them and assume that that is what our child is “meant” to do.
Both paths ignore what they want for themselves.
My friend’s oldest son was over-the-top brilliant. At three, he hid in closets teaching himself to read because the adults in his life wanted him to have a free, playful childhood when what he actually wanted to do was explore books.
He learned to play complex musical scores on the piano by ear, without instruction, and—get this—he didn’t have a piano! He did it with a drawn “piano keyboard” that he made with markers. He grasped mathematical concepts in a way that outpaced many adults when he was just eight years old—I know because I was one of them, and by the way I was no slouch at math.
What he dedicated himself to, however, was basketball. He wasn’t much good at it, by his own admission, but he loved the game and the challenge. Looking back, it probably taught him a lot about normalcy and humility as well.
This last tip is to let your child pursue and be who they actually are, however that looks. In the words of Yoko Ono, in a song written to her son:
“Don’t be afraid to go to hell and back. Don’t be afraid to be afraid.”
Trust, nurture and allow them to pursue what they themselves know they need, even if you don’t understand it.
Do you understand how an acorn turns into an oak tree?
Or a seed into a ripe strawberry?
Or an egg into a dolphin?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Kim Haas / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: May Mantel / Author’s own.