Letting Our Kids Be Who They Are

One fascinating part of being a parent is discovering that our children are their own people.

It’s hard to not be narcissistic as a parent. Our children are, after all, a product of our own biology. They carry our genes, they live in our homes, they mimic our phrases.

From our kid’s first weeks on the planet, we start to dissect them into tiny pieces that we can classify. “She’s stubborn like her mother; He’s lazy like his father; That’s her father’s button nose; He’s got a nice strong jawline just like his grandfather.”

And as they get older, those statements get more personal, more defining. “If she’s anything like her mother, she’s going to give her parents a run for their money; School’s hard for him, he’s more of an athlete like his dad was; She’s just like her brother, doesn’t want anyone telling her what to do; He’s emotional just like his mom…”

There’s a certain amount of supportive sincerity in these statements; it’s grounding to know where we come from. It’s comforting to know that we are part of a chain of humanity. But as my own kids get older, I’m getting glimpses of parts of them I can’t neatly assign.

I have become so wholly and willingly intertwined with my children. From the very literal experience of carrying them inside me, to the years I’ve spent holding them and interpreting their expressions in moments of joy, sadness, fear, and confusion. I feel like I know every piece of them, like I’m responsible for every component of their character, each thought, every reaction.

Seeing my kids become their own people reminds me that I need to make sure I’m allowing space for those parts of them that belong to no one else. As they grow, I want to remember that I’m not the authority on who they are and who they aren’t – I want them to feel confident in their ability to understand themselves better than anyone else.

I want to let my kids be who they are.

I’m no authority on how do do this. I think that like most things in parenting, it’s more of a meander than a route, more of a mindset than a prescription. I’m sure it will be a lifelong journey towards understanding my kids and helping them to know themselves, but here are three places I’m going to start:

I’m going to take the opportunity to get to know them every day. I love seeing how other people interact with my kids because they have no preconceived perceptions of who they are or who they’re supposed to be. There’s no “he doesn’t like this” or “that didn’t work last time” or “I already know the answer to that” to get in the way of a genuine impression. I want to try to stay fresh in my inquiries, appreciate the answers, and let myself learn things I didn’t know. (Or things I thought I knew.)

I’m going to allow for them to change. Anyone who went through high school knows that it’s easy to get locked into being known as the “smart one” or “the ditzy one” or “the shy one.” Even when they are little, it’s tempting to try and define our kids by the behavior they exhibit, but I’m trying to catch myself when I’m doing it. My son may present like a wild animal on a trip to the library, then in the same morning sit for 45 minutes reading books on the couch. My daughter can be clingy and attached to me before lunch, then driven and independent at the playground that afternoon. I love seeing what parts of them stay the same as they grow, but I never want my understanding of them – or their understanding of themselves – to be stagnant.

I’m going to let them own their experiences. I heard an interview with an actor who attributed his love of acting to his parent’s only mild interest in it. (For the full interview, visit episode 909 on wtfpod.com) It may be our first inclination as parents to jump on every interest our kids have and support them wholeheartedly, but it makes some of the magic disappear. For good or bad, I don’t want my enthusiasm to dictate my kid’s level of engagement. There’s something about having to navigate something on your own that makes it really yours. My default is to be excited about anything my kids do, but I’m going to attempt to play it cool and find satisfaction in watching their own passions unfold.

Granted, these are tiny steps towards one tremendous goal. Our kids are little wonders full of big surprises, and there’s no way we’re going to be ready for them all. But with an open mind and a wide open heart, I’m hoping I can support them in being exactly who they are.