In his book, “Far From the Tree,” Andrew Solomon points out that the use of the term “reproduction” in regard to having a baby is misleading in suggesting that two people are coming together to reproduce themselves. He thinks this expresses the deep wish that it is ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs.
Solomon writes that parenthood “abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger”, and the more foreign seeming the stranger, the more negative we are apt to become. During pregnancy we have so many pictures in our mind of who this baby is, often of who we would like her to be. But one of our first tasks as parents is to put aside the imagined baby and now come to know and relate to the real one.
Although Solomon is writing about extreme situations of children falling “far from the tree”, those profoundly different from parental expectations, so much of what he points to has meaning for the more usual experience of parents. Even when we feel our children are not strangers to us, and that we know them well, they often change – or may seem to change – as they move through new developmental stages.
Many times, the feeling of confusion, or even resentment, aroused by a child’s behavior that is not recognized and understood causes an interruption or even a break in a parent/child relationship. Solomon writes that when children are like us they seem like our most precious admirers, but when they differ they can be our worst detractors. Our inability to understand their behavior can leave us feeling incompetent as parents.
Children born with serious deficits often are unable to communicate their needs and wishes in ways that parents can read. Handicapped in their ability to respond appropriately to meet their children’s needs, a failure is created in the parent-child relationship. Handicapped children lead to handicapped parents. This relates to Solomon’s point that “the more foreign seeming the stranger, the more negative we are apt to become.”
Having worked for many years with parents of children who had serious deficits, what stood out was the need to decode children’s atypical means of communication, which often took the form of unacceptable behavior. It became necessary to think more about the context and therefore the meaning of the behavior in order to know how to respond.
In one situation a child whose remoteness led his mother to believe he was completely indifferent to her, would come from the children’s group and stand behind his mother’s chair in another room. To the mother this meant that he was leaving the place he was supposed to be and she would either scold him or ignore him. To the others present it was clear that the child needed his mother and came to her for reassurance. As the mother came to understand this she was able to respond to him in the way he was seeking and he in turn became more outgoing and direct in his communication.
The importance of thinking about the meaning of behavior in responding to our children is something that became very clear working with children whose deficits limited the range of their communication skills. But it is a lesson to be applied in responding to the range of developmental differences in normally developing children.
Solomon wisely writes that we must love our children for themselves, and “not for the best of ourselves in them”. This is often hard to do, but as he says, “loving our children is an exercise for the imagination.”