Despite the educational interruptions brought about by the pandemic, another school year will soon be ending. For many current high school seniors this will mean moving on to college. It also means having to decide on next steps without the opportunity for visits to schools as part of the decision-making process. It also entails a next step in the separation process between parents and children.
This process may also involve differences in the way parents see what is best for their children as contrasted to children’s own ideas about their wants and needs; in some ways a continuation of a process that begins early on. Mothers 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 to their personalities as they develop?
There are many reasons that 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. There are genetic connections as well. Children look like this or that member of the family. Perhaps similar personality characteristics or behavioral traits. As development progresses it’s easy to get mixed up and think that you and your child are the same person.
We ourselves 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 and without realizing it we may repeat the same thing our parents did – treating our children as though they are us, fixing our own lives or realizing our own ambitions through our children.
What makes it difficult is that not only do we want the best for our children, but we are responsible for them for many years. Children are entitled to make their own mistakes, just as we did, 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. But 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 judge about which is which.
Perhaps what is most challenging is not so much understanding the personalities of our children when they are young, but accepting their behavior when it is consistent with who they are. A child who is cautious in social situations, “slow to warm up,” may become a cause for concern if mom was like that and feels it was a handicap. Wanting to correct in her child a part of her temperament or personality, she has trouble accepting who her child is, rather than who she wants her 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 need to help them achieve their goals without trying to change who they are.