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'Your Children are not Your Children'

Who are our children, really?

"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.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday"

I was reminded of this timeless poem by Kahlil Gibran recently. How many potentially loving relationships, I wondered, become fractured when children “fail” to live up to a parents’ idea of who or what they are “supposed” to be? 

It was my second born, my oldest son, who taught me that the innate nature of our children is pretty much in place from the get-go and that we may as well embrace what unfolds because any attempt to "mold" them into our notion of who we think they should be is sure to cause distress.

Prior to his birth, while immersed in research projects and books on child development as part of my schooling, I silently took credit for much of my my first-born daughter's agreeable and easy going nature.  I thought if all parents could study child development, we would all be parenting more happy and agreeable children.

Then that second child was born. By this point I was even further along in my schooling.

Was it possible to ask for a refund?

Talk about an awakening.

This kid marched to his own drummer. He challenged literally everything I did (albeit with a smile) in what felt like some pre-calculated plan to drive me insane. As a toddler, he found sheer delight in throwing the phone out of our seven-story window, tossing his sister’s jewelry in the fish tank and riding his tricycle around the apartment at 3 a.m.

The parenting “techniques” and “strategies” that worked beautifully with my daughter were completely useless and truth be told, felt ridiculous when tried on him.

It soon became clear that my "education" had nothing to do with my daughter’s makeup. She came into the world with her own temperament, as did my son. 

And his temperament, I later came to understand, was the burgeoning of what would become 14 years later, a distinctive and captivating personality.

Once I relinquished my notion of how he “should” be and began embracing rather than resisting his nature, it literally felt freeing. We relaxed more, his behavior mellowed, and both he and our relationship were free to evolve into who and what they were meant to be. 

While we continue to butt heads and our opinions frequently differ, it is clear that he simply has become the teenage version of that challenging toddler – still smiling, still exasperating – but forging his own, not my, journey to adulthood.  

To clarify, there is a difference between temperament and behavior. We parents do greatly influence behavior. How we model and bestow compassion, empathy, boundaries, values and security make a world of difference in how a child's temperament is expressed through their behavior. 

In other words, a child's innate nature, their convictions, interests, idiosyncrasies, talents and spirit can either successfully flourish, or lay dormant and undeveloped depending on the foundation we provide through our own attitudes and behaviors as parents.  

Parent Bonnie Harris recently told me her two children, like mine, were “as different as day and night.”

“My first was adaptable and did not cause disruptions,” said Bonnie. “My daughter, however, would not be told what to do, argued and whined over everything that did not suit her and had a difficult time with change. She brought me to my knees and hence has taught me everything I know about parenting. I call her my teacher. I learned that if I listened, acknowledged and considered her point of view — in other words, made her feel important — she was willing to cooperate. If I did not, she would pay me back! As difficult as my daughter’s temperament was to manage, I knew I had to accept it and support it rather than dismiss it or try to control it the way our entire parenting culture dictates. I have never been sorry for swimming upstream. She is now a strong, creative, respectful and responsible young adult.”

By stepping back and allowing our children to be who they are, even if this differs from who we think they “should” be, not only do we give them the gift of successfully evolving into who they are meant to become, but it will also offer us the privilege of experiencing that precious connection we all deserve to have with our children.

Dawne Kornhaas September 25, 2011 at 10:57 AM
Having kids is like baking a cake. Same recipe but a different outcome every time. My two boys are as different as night and day in personality. And my daughter is her own person who at 7 yrs. doesn't let others influence how or what she thinks.
Dorothy September 25, 2011 at 11:09 AM
Hi Suzy, Loved this article. I can definitely relate with having to relinquish the idea of what my child should be and how freeing that was for me!
Steven DeVaux September 25, 2011 at 12:40 PM
A lot of simple wisdom in what you say. I, for one, agree. It's something you learn as a parent, not something that comes naturally. Once internalized, it makes for much better interactions and long term relationships with your kids.
Teacher September 25, 2011 at 02:16 PM
Beautiful essay! I relate to it as a parent and as a teacher.
Carl Kolchak September 25, 2011 at 02:44 PM
We could also switch the words "children" and "parents" in that poem and learn just as much. Couldn't we?
Newtown4 September 25, 2011 at 02:47 PM
What a great reminder that we need to guide, but also step back!
Suzen Pettit February 06, 2012 at 08:46 PM
great article Suzy! and soooooo true. have always loved that Kahlil Gibran poem and haveto remind myself to re read it from time time
Gerald Singer April 06, 2013 at 04:59 PM
That does not mean they are not your children. That mean they are not you.

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