Your Child, Your Self

By Leslie Pepper

My daughter is the spitting image of me. She has blue eyes, curly brown hair, and fair skin. But that’s where our similarities end. She thinks a meal isn’t complete without meat, but I’m a vegetarian. She’s naturally drawn to people, whereas I’m a bit of a recluse. Her flashy outfits totally overshadow my muted neutrals. I often say that if she didn’t have my impossible-to-tame ringlets, I’d swear she wasn’t mine. And when she struts around in a pink shirt and orange pants, I’m not exactly begging for mother-daughter recognition.

In truth, though I’m generally delighted to be the mom of such a spitfire, our differences frustrate me sometimes. I never assumed or expected my daughter would be my clone, but I hardly envisioned a polar opposite either. Turns out, I’m not alone. “I think all parents have the expectation when their kids are born that they know what they want them to be and who they will be,” said Dr. Christine Belaire, licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist with Belaire Counseling Services.

Expectations vs. Reality.

If you’re a girlie girl, chances are you’ve been picturing weekly mother-daughter mall excursions followed by mini-pedis. Or if you’re a bookworm, perhaps you’ve envisioned long talks about Shakespeare plays with your high-school-age son. 

But as our children grow and their personalities emerge, reality often diverges from fantasy. “We think our kid is going to be an extension of ourselves, but at some point he or she becomes a unique person with a separate view of the world,” said Michael Bradley, EdD, a psychologist for teens and families and author of Heart and Soul of the Next Generation

Dealing with Disappointment.

When Jennifer Twiggs, 43, was a child, she participated in every sport. “If there wasn’t a girls’ team, I would just play on the boys’,” she said. Jennifer couldn’t hide her dismay when her 14-year-old daughter, Julianna, chose cheerleading. “I’m trying to be supportive,” Jennifer said. “I went to the first game to watch her cheer, but it’s really hard for me to be cool about her jumping around behind the boys in a tiny outfit.”

Belaire said she has seen parents who try to force their children into doing what they want them to do, which results negatively for the child. “Some comply all the way up to college and then get that first taste of freedom and go off the deep-end,” she said. “It looks like a good kid gone bad, when really they’re just trying to find themselves.” Belaire said she has even seen children fake injuries just to avoid playing sports they’ve been forced into. “It’s not our job as parents to mold our children into what they should be, it’s our job to guide them into who they are,” she said.

Parents need to be able to deal logically, instead of emotionally, which helps them figure out what’s behind the misgivings. If you’re afraid you can’t bond, fear not. 

“It’s just a matter of showing interest in them and what they like,” Belaire said. “You don’t have to understand everything a child likes just to show interest in it. And parents should support those things by providing outlets for the child’s activity.” 

Your son’s different interests may give you new options for conversation. He loves soccer and you’re clueless about the game? Go to a match and pay attention while he gives you a play-by-play. In other words, spend time in his world and let him show you the lay of the land.

Just keep in mind, you may end up feeling inadequate if your daughter’s a science whiz and your knowledge of Saturn stops at “midsize sedan.” For the first time, you’re no longer omniscient, and it’s unnerving to feel you don’t possess the tools to help your child. But you can still help your daughter with her schoolwork by showing her how to look up information on the internet. You’re providing parental supervision and learning right alongside her. Sit and talk with her as she works through her homework. You’ll get a sense of what she’s good at, and by explaining it to you she’ll get a better grasp on the concepts.

When You Clash.

If I’m being honest, my ever-so-sociable daughter can be exhausting. She always wants to do things together, and I sometimes find myself about to snap, “Can’t you read a book by yourself?” Admittedly, I don’t think experts would agree that’s the best approach. Better, said Bradley, would be what he calls a compliment-and-compromise strategy: Tell her you love spending time with her, and then ask if she can occupy herself quietly for 20 minutes before you do something fun together.

The Upshot of Differences.

Contrasts in personalities can be a great asset. “As a therapist, I worry about the kid who’s exactly like his mom or dad,” Bradley said. “I start to wonder: Is this for real, or is he doing things just for parental approval?” Bradley is also suspicious of the overly accommodating child. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to please others, but when that desire causes a kid to be something other than what he truly is, he can become depressed and anxious, and act out in other ways,” he said.

In the best-case scenario, children can say and do things on their own, even when those things are the opposite of what you say and do. A child who can respectfully disagree with an adult is creating his own distinct identity, an asset when he must confront tough decisions in the future. If he’s resolute enough to keep his sense of self intact when he’s with you, he’ll probably be able to stand up to his peers as well. 

“Children with strong identities have higher self-esteem, which greatly reduces the lure of dangerous behaviors,” Bradley said. “These types of kids tell me that drugs are a waste of time.” You can also revel in knowing that this child will reliably tell you the truth. 

As for me, I’m still baffled by my daughter’s flamboyance, but I’m also impressed with how she can make friends with just about anyone. Watching her through the years, I’ve learned a thing or two. The other day I walked into a class at my gym and actually struck up a conversation with someone I didn’t know. My new friend and I made a lunch date for next week, but I highly doubt I will be wearing orange pants.

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08 Aug 2016

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