In his book “Far From the Tree,” Andrew Solomon discusses the impact on both parents and children when children turn out to be different from who the parents are, and from what they expected in their children. Solomon is discussing profound differences often resulting from children born with deficits such as blindness or deafness, autism or physical handicaps, which are especially challenging. But his observations are relevant for parents and children dealing with more typical differences in personalities, in strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes.
Although Solomon is pointing to the impact of differences in children from parental expectations, some of the same observations apply when children show similarities to parents as they develop. Solomon points to the use of the word “reproduce”, as indicative of the problem. It suggests that we are reproducing ourselves in our children rather than giving birth to new people. This idea gives rise to the expectation that we will see ourselves in our children.
Of course, to some extent we do, both realistically and unrealistically. We may react positively to similarities that reflect things we like about ourselves but reject those we reject in ourselves. Either way, we can have difficulty accepting differences in our children and seeing them for themselves – who they are as individuals, not reproductions of us, their parents.
A concern expressed by many mothers relates to what is often labeled “shy” or “timid.” A familiar description is of a child who is cautious, holding back in social situations, and in particular, not demonstrating to others the personality that is shown at home. A mother recently expressed the anxiety she feels about this, particularly because she sees her daughter having the same issues she herself has. She described herself as having been over-protected as a child which has left her fearful and anxious in many situations. She worries about whether she has repeated the same pattern with her child, producing the same result she wanted to avoid.
As an example of how she might be doing this, she spoke about her own fearfulness that her child might get hurt in physical activities, and wondered if she is holding her back from exploring or trying things as a result. In a group the child is in, the teacher encourages the parents to stand back, saying the children are capable of doing more than the parents think they are. She wondered how a parent could know if a child is really ready to do something on her own.
This is really a basic question in raising a child, relating as it does to the whole matter of expectation. Often, when children are not responding in areas of development as parents would like, the matter is actually one of expectation. Parents are expecting behavior of which a child is not yet capable. This is particularly true when it comes to taking next steps such giving up a bottle, or separating from a parent in school. But is may also be true of a readiness to try new things.
Although we have general guidelines that set certain expectations about what children can do at different ages and developmental stages, these are population related and cover a broad spectrum. Appropriate expectation for any individual is specific to that child, and needs to be considered in the context of one’s knowledge of the individual child. That is why a parent needs to know her own child rather than whether any particular behavior is “normal.”
The problem with seeing ourselves reproduced in our child is that it keeps us from knowing who our child is in his or her own right. We then try to change something we don’t like in ourselves without reference to what the behavior may mean for our child.
It is by coming to know our own child, and the meaning of the behavior for her, that we can be most helpful in helping that child move forward in whatever area of development is involved.