A well known psychiatrist who studied children said that you could see the differences in babies’ personalities at birth just by observing them in a nursery. (Of course that was in the days before mothers and babies were sent home before they could even catch their breath.) He talked about the “executive baby”, who already seemed to be bossing everyone around, the “demanding baby”, who managed to get more attention than others, the “winning baby”, whom everyone immediately loved, among other examples.
Mothers also have definite ideas about what their children were like as babies and will describe them as easy, difficult, active, having a mind of their own and so on. Do such descriptions match up in any way to their personalities as they develop? A friend wrote to me in response to the last article saying she wasn’t sure we really understand our children’s personalities when they are young. She wondered if that is why we read so much of ourselves or our own histories in them.
Actually, there are many reasons that we find it challenging to see our children as their own people separate from ourselves. The fact that mothers carry babies in their bodies begins a very strong connection. We imagine even before birth what the baby will be like. Sometimes it’s hard to shift from the imagined baby to the real baby, since they are rarely the same.
Of course there are genetic connections as well. Children look like this or that member of the family. They may have similar personality characteristics or behavioral traits. Even as development progresses, your mother or mother-in-law may say that you or your husband were just like that. It’s easy to get mixed up and think that you and your child are the same person. On the other hand, if we expect that kind of identification and instead a child seems very different, that can become a cause for concern, or of feeling disconnected from one’s child.
We ourselves may have childhood memories of not having felt understood by our parents. We may even have felt they wanted things for us that were not what we wanted for ourselves. Sometimes as parents we set about trying to correct whatever we didn’t like in our own growing up. In trying to do that, without realizing it we may repeat the same thing our parents did – namely treating our children as though they are us, fixing our own lives through our children. Or realizing our own ambitions through our children.
What makes it difficult to separate our children from ourselves is that not only do we want the best for our children, but we are responsible for them for many years. Someone once said to me that children are entitled to make their own mistakes, just as we did. There is much wisdom in that, but it is understandable that as parents we want our children to learn from our experience, to try to keep them from the mistakes we think they are making or about to make.
It is often hard to know when children need to be protected from their own behavior and when to leave them alone to learn from their own mistakes. We don’t try to stop children from walking because they fall down while learning. We pick them up and help them keep going. On the other hand, we do intervene if they are trying to climb way beyond their ability and are likely really to get hurt. It can be hard at times, to make a judgment about which it is.
Perhaps what is most challenging is not so much understanding the personalities of our children when they are young, but recognizing their behavior when it is consistent with who they are. A good example is children who are cautious in social situations. A mother may aptly describe such a child as “slow to warm up”. Yet the behavior itself becomes a cause for concern, at times because mom herself was like that and feels it was a handicap. She wants to correct in her child a part of her temperament or personality and has trouble accepting who her child is, rather than who she wants her to be – or not to be.
The same is true for other behavior, such as when children are self-assertive, willful, observers more than participants, or loners rather than joiners. Because children are still learning how to function in the world they may not always moderate their behavior in ways that serve them well in various situations. As when they were learning to walk, we now need to help them achieve their goals without trying to change who they are.
An old song says “neither doctor, lawyer, nor Indian chief could love you any more than I do.” Perhaps it should be, “whether you’re a doctor, lawyer or Indian Chief, I couldn’t love you more than I do.”