A mother shared her concern about her six year old son who was upset about an after school sports activity. He is unhappy about having to be there and when mom picked him up from school he begged her emotionally not to make him go. The problem she was discussing actually was not about her son but about the attitude of her husband. They see the situation differently, which creates a conflict in the way they respond to the boy.
The mother’s view is that her son doesn’t love sports and feels he is not good at it. She thinks this creates anxiety in him that is expressed when he says he prays the ball will not come to him because he is never sure what to do with it when it does. She feels they should not force him to go to this activity that he dislikes, and that makes him feel incompetent.
His father, however, is a superb athlete, a trophy winner who says, “No child of mine is going to not like sports or to not be good at it.” His attitude is that the boy must be made to participate in the activity. The mother feels this is an assault to the father’s ego, which makes him unable to relate to the ways in which his son is different from himself. Also, the father blames her for being too permissive, and insists that they have to make their children “shape up.” Their son is caught between the differences in attitude and approach of his parents.
Andrew Solomon, in his book “Far From the Tree,” 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.
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. Others often point out resemblances both in physical attributes, in behavior and mannerisms.
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.
The example given here also points to the way in which differences between parents has an impact on children. The trait we dislike in a child may be one we identify with one we dislike in our mate, or as in this instance, something more difficult for one parent than the other to accept. Here, the father was critical of both his son’s feelings and what he viewed as the mother’s permissive attitude. This adds another dimension to the challenge of seeing the child, rather than ourselves in the child.
Fortunately, these particular parents were able eventually to focus on their sons feelings and find a constructive way to address them. This takes work and thought, the ability to relate to what our child is feeling and doing – to hear what he or she is telling us – rather than what we think we see or hear about ourselves.