This morning, as my husband and I were walking our dog, we passed two boys playing catch on their front lawn. I looked at my husband and smiled. Inside, I felt a little ache for him. As an athlete and lover of sports, I know he secretly wished that our girls had that same desire to spend their free time at home playing anything athletic. It got me to thinking about “Jessie,” a mom who reached out to me seeking advice. Jessie confided in me that her daughter is shy and reserved, and she really wants her to be friendly and outgoing. “Why?” I asked. She told me that she believes her daughter’s life would be better. Jessie couldn’t make sense of it, especially since she is so outspoken herself, and was a precocious little girl. Jessie continued to tell me about all of the things she has done – unsuccessfully – to nurture this trait in her daughter. “What am I doing wrong? I feel like such a failure.” Jessie said. Then she asked me what she can do or say in order to get her daughter to change.
I’m sure at some point most of us realize that our children aren’t quite the people we thought/expected/hoped they would be. And for many, this reality can be difficult. Shedding the preconceived notions of who you want your child to be can even feel somewhat like a grieving process. While it’s okay to mourn the loss of what you think your child should have been, it’s important to embrace who they are. While it might take time to get over this hurdle, what lies on the other side – a loving, supportive relationship with mutual respect – is worth the effort.
Here are two effective tips on how to parent the child you have instead of the one you wish you had.
- Understand your child’s needs and how best to respond to them. Every child is different, so what works for one of your children may not work for the other. That can be challenging, especially for those of us who were brought up to believe that we must treat our children equally. Loving and supporting our children equally doesn’t necessitate giving them the same things. Perhaps one of your children requires more of your attention with school work than the other. By spending time helping them (more time than you spend with your other child) does not translate to loving them more. Nor does it mean it will always be this way. Maybe your other child is disorganized or messy, and does not clean up after themselves. So you spend time trying to help them create systems to declutter and clear the chaos. But after that, the work is done by them alone. Does this mean that you need to find more time to spend with this child so that you are spending equal time with both? No! You didn’t help them in an effort to change them, but rather to respond to their needs as individuals. The important thing here is to find ways to support each of your children’s needs. As a result, your children might eventually become more of who you hoped they would be. But that is not the expectation, just a bonus!
- Set realistic expectations for behavior and responsibilities, and require follow through. It would be great if our children listened to everything we say, and did everything we expect. But when we were children we didn’t behave in that way, and they won’t either. Naturally, our children’s job is to push our buttons, and make their own mistakes. By no means does embracing who your child is and their individual needs equate to not disciplining them or ignoring misbehavior. It simply requires some thought as to what they are capable of, and then clearly communicating our expectations. Working in this way allows our children to succeed. And when desired outcomes are achieved, it becomes easier to let go of who we wanted our children to be. As a result, when they stumble or fail, we are eager to find meaningful and helpful ways to respond to them, enabling them to be more effective in the future.
Okay, so what happens if we try these things and still struggle to accept our children for who they are?
- This is all a process, one that can take years.
- As our children grow, they change.
- Keep things in perspective.
As we begin to parent the child we have versus the one we wish we had, we need to keep reminding ourselves to accept and embrace who they are. Jessie’s daughter, whose shyness is crippling in second grade, may always exhibit a bit of social anxiety. But it doesn’t mean that she won’t have friends, or that she won’t participate in activities. It means that she may just need more support and encouragement than what Jessie expected.
As we give up our dream of who/what we wanted our child to be and accept them for who they are, we begin to be grateful for the child we have. And as a result, we develop a much deeper love. The unintended upshot: our child will come to accept themselves, boosting their self-esteem, which will allow them to thrive in all sorts of ways we never imagined. This is what we want for our children, and it starts with connection and acceptance.