Every child is a different kind of flower, and all together make this world
A Beautiful Garden
This is my first blog post and I decided to write about one of the fundamental principles of parenting and child rearing “acceptance”. The word acceptance has many meanings. I am using it to mean “willingness to tolerate a difficult situation (Oxford dictionary)” or to mean “ positive welcome and belonging (Merriam-Webster dictionary)”.
Just like fingerprints, every child is unique in his or her own special way. Each has a unique way of feeling, thinking and interacting with others. Every child is an individual with special social, emotional, intellectual and physical qualities. Before we have children we want them to born healthy. Once they are born and we are sure that they are healthy all other expectations creep up. We as parents are socially and culturally conditioned and do exactly what our ancestors did to their children, which is planning their future, every bit of it. Somewhere along the way, we fail to notice this uniqueness. Shouldn’t we do something about that?
One of the most effective ways to build self-esteem in children is by accepting each child’s uniqueness. We should not have any preconceived ideas about who are children will be, what they will be interested in, their level of academic performance, or their professional future. I have interacted with hundreds of families in my twenty-year career in child psychiatry. In majority of parents who bring their children for psychiatric help I have seen a lack of acceptance of their children. There is always something that they see lacking in their children that they want fixed.
A number of parents have hurt their children (physically and/or emotionally) due to disappointment at their child’s lack of athletic skills, academic achievement, or social graces. We constantly hear parents saying “ he is useless”, “ she is only fit for washing dishes”, “ dumb”, and they constantly compare their children with other children in a negative way. Many parents believe, that kind of comparison is important to improve competitive skills in children. Our schools are no better in this regard with their ranking system and put-downs in front of whole school.
To some degree the expectation of children to fit the expectations of parents and society is necessary, for them to become socialized, to learn to control aggression and to be empathetic and kind to others. However parental and educational systems are unfortunately moving education away from recognition of individual strengths and differences towards a one-size-fits-all approach. We push our children to become performance monkeys with no opportunity to express their individuality.
When a child is not accepted for what he is, there is no appreciation of his efforts or his individuality. For instance a child who is not able to do well in Mathematics may be good in drawing. As art is not given importance in our culture there will be pressure on him to improve his Math skills with no encouragement in art. He will be sent to after school Math tuition, and will not be encouraged or even positively discouraged from doing art. If his brain is not designed to take in Math he will do poorly or at best average in that and will end up being no good at art due to lack of practice and encouragement. This indeed most likely will lead to poor self-esteem and its consequences.
Parents play many different roles such as caregiver, teacher, disciplinarian and nurturer. Part of being a nurturing parent is to be accepting of their child’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences. This forms the foundation of long healthy interactions between the parent and the child. For many parents this can be very difficult. When I visit India with my children, invariably I get asked what they are going to study. When I say, I don’t know and that it will depend on what they are interested in I get the hint of a surprised look on their faces. One parent even asked me “how can they make the decision at a young age, we need to make the decision for them” I totally understand that children are not as mature at the age of sixteen. What they need is guidance with acceptance but not decisions about future made for them. We as parents need to bring them up in such a way that they realize their strengths and potential and confidence in making decision for themselves. Understanding and accepting your child as opposed to who you want them to be is fundamental to being a connected parent.
When we accept our children we make them be accepting of themselves. The goal of parenting should be to raise children with a healthy self-image and self-esteem, which are the main ingredients to success in school and life. Of course to the best of the child’s ability we as parents should give them opportunities to learn and enjoy activities that may challenge them outside their comfort zone. But forcing them to follow a prescribed formula almost always has negative consequences.
One common question I get asked back when I discuss acceptance with parents “does that mean we should not say anything, we should not correct them or expect anything from them?” This misconception can lead to a parent being hands off and being uninvolved. However, acceptance is much more than being hands off. When a parent fully accepts the child for what they are they become the leader in helping the child understand who they are and yet be effective in this world.
Recently I came across the book “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and Search for Identity,” written by Andrew Solomon who is an American Psychologist. In this book he has interviewed more than 300 families, most of whom successfully raised children who are deaf, dwarfs, autistic, schizophrenic and the like. He makes a strong case for accepting one’s children for who they are, at the same time, helping them become the best they can be. He writes that most of the parents interviewed found a lot of meaning and many rewards in dealing with a child who was different.
How can you improve the acceptance of your child?
For a child to feel unique they need to know that there is something special about them, that they can do something special and that others think that they are special. They would be able to express themselves in their own way, respect themselves and enjoy being different. As a parent you can foster this sense of uniqueness by doing the following.
- Understand your child’s unique development, their physical, intellectual and emotional capabilities.
- Take time to know them, talk to them, listen to them play with them and when you are with them pay attention to them.
- Find out what their interests are and what they excel in and encourage them in those activities. Increase opportunities for them to express themselves creatively.
- Allow them to do things their own way as much as possible
- Don’t expect them to be like you, they are not there to fulfill your unfinished dreams.
Remember that for many parents it is not very easy to accept their children when they are different due to either an intellectual, physical or emotional difference. Parental love has been touted to be ‘unconditional’. Despite that in some cases acceptance takes time. Also remember that when we worry about our child’s academic future, emotional health and social connectedness, we are probably not aware of the child in front of us who wants us to play with them, listen to them and missing the moment of shared enjoyment.
|You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.