I’ve been thinking about how we raise children around the world a lot lately, for a bunch of different reasons. Partly it’s parents that are overly involved and setting the course for their children’s lives without considering what the child really wants to do. Partly it’s because some parents don’t care who their children are; there is a predetermined plan based on the family business or what/who the family has determined they are and the child gets no say in that. And partly it’s because of how I was raised and how my parents tried to make me fit into a mold of who they wanted me to be. What they did to me was not healthy and it had no regard for my dignity or my most basic human needs. All of that thinking makes me retreat into my head to evaluate my own parenting and how I have shifted over the almost 20 years I have been doing this impossible task.
I mean, think about it. You get this baby either by birth, adoption, however and this baby cannot tell you anything about itself. It has no preferences or desires at that point. It is driven 100% by instinct. It doesn’t want to be hungry, dirty, wet, or cold. It craves human connection. Its body might have some allergies and react badly to certain foods in the parent’s milk or to the formula. But the baby can’t say that their stomach hurts because they are allergic to milk or soy, or there’s too much acid. This is a painful game the baby and parent must play, where the baby cries in pain and the parent gets to figure out why and how to make it better. The entire first year of a person’s life is this game. It only gets slightly easier when the baby grows up into a toddler who can talk.
Due to all the trauma I had experienced by the time I was 7, I developed serious anxiety and felt regular and extremely painful stomach pain. It was crippling and I would just drop to the floor and roll around. My parents first assumed it was me looking for attention. Their next assumption was that it was a game. After it didn’t stop, they took me to the doctor. He examined my torso, asked a couple questions and decided that something might actually be hurting but because kids don’t know all their body parts, they will just say stomach. He told me to point to what hurt from then on and told my parents he couldn’t find any medical cause for my body to hurt anywhere. Fucker. So when I said and pointed to my stomach, I was dismissed. The doctor never noticed my bloody fingernails that I was ripping out when I was in panic mode. Neither did my parents. Unless it was to tell me to stop doing that. They tried to take away my only coping mechanism, which was sucking my thumb until I was 11. They tried everything for years and nothing worked. They gave up eventually and I stopped when I started sleeping over at friends’ houses and I was ashamed of it. And then just like that, I stopped.
How many times have I dismissed my kids when they were scared about something and I told them it was no big deal? I should’ve been more in tune with that and tried to understand what they were scared of. I can fix that, though. I will do better.
That has been the hallmark of my parenting. I apologize when I get things wrong. I acknowledge it directly to them as soon as I realize it. I say things like “you were right, I am sorry, I will not do that again.” Those are my replacements for “Because I said so, I’m the parent and you are the child, and you will understand when you are an adult.”
Showing them that I don’t handle everything perfectly is very validating because they mess up a lot trying new things. For them, everything is new. As adults, we don’t have to try new things if we don’t want to. If we can get ourselves where we need to go, have a job we love, are content with out education level and don’t need to learn anything new, we can go about our life just doing the same old things. Kids can’t. There is so much they can’t do until they reach a certain point like driving, or cooking. There is so much that their brains aren’t ready to do yet. And some parents are pushing them so hard to do what makes sense to them as adults, without ever realizing that their children’s brains are just not ready for that thing that they “should” be ready for.
Previous generations just assumed that kids were blank slates with no feelings or desires and just pushed them in a direction with nothing but tough love and strict expectations. There’s also the unhealthy opposite-letting the underdeveloped brain dictate everything and providing so much direction that the children can’t function without their parents dictating their next move. There’s a middle ground here. Let your children show you who they are and what they love. Let them choose their path forward. Support their dreams, but don’t hold their dreams against them when they switch dreams. Let them try new things and don’t force them to specialize in anything too early, unless that’s exactly what they want. And if they want that but then change their mind because it’s too much for them, let them stop. Don’t unintentionally force your unrealized dream on your kid. This happens way too much.
Keep the village around your child supportive and kind, be patient with your child, and give them the space to find themselves. Listen to them. Defiance, tears, tantrums, all of it is messaging from someone without the intellectual capability to express themselves with words. If your kid previously found joy in something and doesn’t anymore, ask yourself why and more importantly, as them why. Maybe they are sticking with something for you, not because they love it. Give them the freedom to make those decisions when they no longer feel joy.