We often have definite ideas about what our children were like as babies but do such ideas match up in any way to their personalities as they develop? We seem to read so much of ourselves or our own histories in our children.
Why do we find it challenging to see our children as their own people separate from ourselves? Mothers carrying babies in their bodies begins a very strong connection. We imagine even before birth what the baby will be like. Sometimes it is hard to shift from the imagined baby to the real baby, since they are rarely the same.
There are genetic connections as well. Children look like a member of the family. They may have similar personality characteristics or behavioral traits. 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. 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 may have childhood memories of not having felt understood by our parents. 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, correcting 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 said that children are entitled to make their own mistakes, just as we did, but instead 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 is which.
Perhaps what is most challenging is accepting children’s behavior when it is consistent with who they are. For example, a child who is cautious in social situations a mother may aptly describe as “slow to warm up”. Yet the behavior itself becomes a cause for concern 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.
But first we need to know who they are.