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How Do We Let Our Kids Be Who They Are?

This article first appeared on OC Moms Magazine on March 21, 2015.

As parents, we have endless hopes and dreams for our children.  We hope first and foremost that they are safe and healthy.  We hope that they are happy.  We hope their hearts don’t get broken.  We wish them work that they are passionate about, work that supports them and is meaningful.  We hope that they have close, fulfilling relationships and that their lives are populated with kind people.  We hope they are intelligent.

Sometimes, if we are honest with ourselves, we have more superficial wishes too.  That they are “popular”.  That they are the best player on the team.  That they are beautiful.

On a day to day basis, we are faced with a number of parenting challenges.  We see behaviors emerging in our children that we know won’t serve them, or others, well.  I see my daughter losing her temper at the drop of a hat.  I see my son choosing to play video games instead of picking up a book to read.  I see them both struggle at times with being conscious of other people, understanding how to give and receive with open hearts.

If I tried to focus on every “bad” habit and correct it, I would be correcting them all day long.  I struggle with letting them be who they are by nature, and stepping in and intervening in order to guide them towards better choices.

Do we believe that children a) are exactly how they should be at a given point in time and b) will learn from the natural consequences of their choices?  Or do we believe that a) children are molded by  parental influence and b) it is our job to teach them how to be in this world?

As with most things in life, I suspect that there is a relatively happy middle ground to be found here.  Not that I have found it!  I tend to err on the side of stepping in a little too often.

This often means “frontloading”.  For example, before we go to a birthday party, we discuss many of the potential social situations that could arise and how such situations are going to be handled.  “What will you do if the other kids don’t want to play what you want to play?”  “What will happen if you start having a temper tantrum?”  “What will you do if there aren’t enough goodie bags?”

Is this exhausting for everyone involved?  Yes.  Does it suck the fun right out of the birthday party?  Yes.  Does it actually change the behavior at the party?  No.  Do I continue to do this before every birthday party?  Yes.

Here is another example.   I often feel like I am “forcing” my son to read, as he doesn’t naturally enjoy reading. The logical part of me knows that he will come to like reading when the time is right.  Another logical part of me understands that perhaps reading won’t be his particular strength.  And yet another logical part of me accepts that he doesn’t have to love reading, just because I do.  And yet the illogical part of me prevails as I continue to force the issue.

I think there are risks to these parenting choices.  First of all, I send my kids the message that they are somehow not ok just as they are.  Perhaps even that I would love them more, or approve of them more (kids can often confuse the two) if they behaved how I wanted them to behave.

On the surface, I think my intrusiveness is well intentioned.  I want them to learn “good” habits and want them to be “good” kids.  But beneath the surface, I think fear exists.  Fear that they will suffer if they don’t learn certain proper behaviors now.

Fear leads to a desire to control.  Trying to control who they are and who they become in order to essentially extinguish my fears of what would happen if I took a step back and surrendered to their individual, organic growth.

It’s a myth, a fallacy, that I can protect them from all negative outcomes and traumas by stepping in at every opportunity with my input.  I have to let them be who they are.  They will learn from their mistakes and consequences along the way.  Trying to step in and prevent this process from unfolding only deprives them of the opportunity to learn and grow.

I am not saying that kids don’t need structure, rules, and boundaries.  They absolutely do.  They absolutely need to understand that certain things are right and certain things are wrong.  Teaching them such rules (most of which fall under the umbrella of “Be Kind and Respectful”) is part of our job as parents.

We have to cultivate an awareness of when our guidance is needed and appropriate, versus when it is intrusive and based in fear and a desire to control.

Beyond that awareness, I try to do my best to live by example to them.  I think kids do what we do, much more than what we say.  I have much more control over my own behaviors than I do over my childrens’ behaviors.  I can only hope that if I continue to seek my own growth and evolution, that they will follow suit.


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