During a small, adult social gathering, the conversation somehow turned to individual memories of growing up in different parts of the country and in family backgrounds that differed from one’s own, both educationally and economically. A theme that emerged in the discussion was the difficulty encountered in trying to forge a path different from the one expected.
One person said that his memory of growing up was of getting the message from his parents that because of their age and experience, they knew better what was best for him than he did. Such messages discourage pushing ahead on one’s own to explore different possibilities.
What comes to mind is “Far From the Tree,” by Andrew Solomon. A gay man, he writes of his own difficulties growing up and says that while his parents were never derisive, they were uncomfortable with his difference from them and encouraged him to try to be straight. Interestingly, he began his research with parents of disabled children, in order to look at the process by which parents reconcile themselves to children who present significant challenges. He writes that he was on a quest to forgive – perhaps understand – his own parents for pressing him to be “untrue” to himself.
Solomon writes that our first task is to get to know, and to relate to who our own child is rather than the one we imagined or hoped for. He suggests that referring to the process of having children as reproduction promotes the idea that we are reproducing ourselves through that act. While that may be true for the species it is misleading in respect to individuals.
While parents may have a need to see themselves in their children, this applies also to what they would not like to see repeated about themselves. In part, too, there may be a wish on the part of parents to correct in raising their children what they did not like about the way they themselves were raised. There is a tendency to hold our parents responsible for our own faults.
These factors may all be part of the issue of parental expectations and the way this impacts on children as they develop. But for parents, the question becomes one of their changing role as children grow. The human infant begins life completely dependent on adult care. Parents are responsible for an infant’s very survival and can begin to feel that everything they do is of great significance in that regard.
Gradually, the infant grows and develops new skills that allow for some independent functioning. This emerging independence is enhanced by the ability to walk and talk. Cognitive development means that children begin to form ideas about things and to express them.
In this process, the push toward autonomy begins to assert itself and children may protest or rebel against parental wishes or expectations as they express their own wishes that may differ. For parents, the story of development becomes one of protecting or letting go. In other words, at every stage as children push for new freedoms, parents have to assess how safe it is to let go. Are children really capable of the freedoms to which they aspire?
There are no universal answers to the questions that arise in this process. A parent has to know his or her own child and make a judgment accordingly. It involves taking a risk – including the risk of making a mistake. For parents the risk is their responsibility as protectors. For a child, or young adult, the risk may lie in taking responsibility for one’s own decisions, good or bad.
Parent may feel they have the experience to know what is best for their child. The challenge is to know the child as well as they know their own life experience.