Your children are not your children

Last Sunday afternoon, I had a stunning revelation:  “You cannot have any needs that are bound up in the behavior or actions or personality of your children.  When it comes to your children, you must be ego-less.”

This is not to say that, as a parent, you must be selfless.  But your needs and desires must not be dependent on your children.

Even as this crystal clear realization came to me, I had a sinking feeling that this parenting principle would be the hardest one of all to follow.

As often happens when I’m writing this blog, I begin thinking that I’m talking about one thing and end up realizing somewhere along the way that I’m talking about something completely different.  In this case, the original theme for this blog post was about being a pushy parent — and how much pushing is the right amount.  However, by the end of Sunday afternoon, the day of infamy, my thoughts had moved away from pushing versus not pushing to something more challenging.

Our weekend was going well.  We had a good family meeting on Sunday morning with everyone participating and in fine spirits.  One of the things that was touched on (and had been mentioned earlier in the weekend, as well) was that Zoe and I would go running around Bass Lake in the afternoon.  Zoe is participating in Girls on the Run, a program that promotes self esteem through a girl-power curriculum that integrates running and training for a 5K.  I’m Zoe’s “running buddy”.  While most of what the girls do takes place during a twice-a-week afterschool program, each child is required to have an adult running buddy to run the 5K with.  Training with your running buddy is optional.  When Zoe started the program about a month ago, we talked about running together on the weekends.  She seemed receptive to the idea, and we have actually done it a few times (on a fairlly limited basis, as she is still not up to running very far at one time).

This past Sunday, I was looking forward to our run together.  First, the weather was absolutely gorgeous — blue sky, sun, breezy, temperatures in the 70s, leaf colors still vibrant.  I felt an urgency to get out and enjoy the day because it seemed it might be one of the last warm days of the year.  I was also feeling that it would be a good opportunity to move Zoe along with her running, which seemed sluggish to me — and I was starting to wonder how she would ever run a 5K.  Finally, I was looking forward to some physical activity, myself, and thought I could run a few extra laps around the lake and have it “count” as real exercise for me, too.

But when the time came, Zoe was not enthusiastic.  She put on her running shoes, but refused to change out of her jeans, although I nagged her and pointed out how much more comfortable she would be in shorts, or at least stretchy pants.  To no avail.  After I dragged her away from the television, we set out for the short drive to the Moses Cone carriage trails near the Blue Ridge Parkway.  However, we had not gone very far when the conversation turned in such a way that it became obvious that Zoe did not want to go running.  For some reason, this absolutely pushed me over the emotional edge.  I’m really not sure why, at that moment, I felt so disproportionately frustrated, discouraged, irritated, let down…  My bubble had been burst, and I was strangely heart-broken.  I did not handle it well.  The words “guilt and recrimination” come to mind.

Initially, I thought about this incident in terms of pushiness.  I know for a fact that I am not the pushiest parent in the world.  One friend has told me repeatedly that her children are “required” to partipate in at least one organized sport a semester or face consequences.  Another friend, who I think of as very gentle and low-key in her parenting style, expressed to me recently that she thought it was necessary to push children to do things so that they did not miss out on valuable experiences.  I know other children who have been involved in such an endless stream of activities since they were very young that I can’t help but think the motivation has come more from the parents than the kids.  So, if my pushiness seemed within normal range, why did I still feel so uncomfortable with my reaction to Zoe not wanting to go running?

In a moment of clarity, I realized that this was about something more profound than whether my child went running or not — or whether I was being too pushy.  It was about my own ego and a vision I had (perhaps without even fully realizing it) of Zoe (as an athlete, ready and willing to work hard to achieve a goal) and of our relationship (mother and daughter, in sync, enjoying an activity together).  Never mind that it was MY vision and MY goal.  In this instant of clarity, I saw how many different ways my ego was tied up in my children and how powerful the desire was for them to fulfill my needs.  It was sobering.  But it gave me some important insight and, hopefully, a path for pursuing a more peaceful and contented relationship with my children.

It’s been almost a week since that fateful day — a busy, tiring week when I have not had time to write or reflect — and this blog post feels disjointed, since it was written in several sittings with my mood very different at each time.  In retrospect, I can see even more how I overreacted to the running incident — but I hope some good will come from it.

Posting this amazing Sweet Honey and the Rock song (with words by Khalil Gibran) two ways — check it out!


3 thoughts on “Your children are not your children

  1. Sounds like a real breakthrough Karla. I have been meaning to reply to many of your blog post for some time, but have been busy and wanted to have the time to give a thoughtful reply. What follows is a reply to your posts as a whole, not just this one in particular, so forgive me if a meander a bit in my reply.

    I will start by saying that my general sense of things when reading your blog is that you are simply trying too hard. The concept of positive discipline and so forth are all noble and fine concepts, but I tend to worry when I see parents trying to parent “by the book” regardless of what book that might be. In my mind it doesn’t matter if you are using some book to succeed in “raising children God’s way” (yes this is real: ) or if you are a disciple of positive discipline; if you are relying on *any* book, you are probably doing it wrong.

    To me, parenting has always been extremely natural. We have, after all, been doing this a species for a very, very, very long time. I have always found trusting my gut and going with the flow has worked rather well. As evidence I will put forth that all three of my kids make straight A’s and that my eldest is enrolled as a resident student in the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. I don’t say this to brag, but rather to point out that this approach has yielded what most would consider positive results. More importantly, they are all decent human beings who are kind.

    Life is situational. We get upset and sometimes angry. At times we are overcome by the beauty of the universe and moved to tears. That is how life is. I have been angry at my kids, they have been angry at me. But we have also shared exceptionally tender moments. And it is all okay, because that is how it flows. We as humans get angry, frustrated and confused, but we also are tender, kind and loving. We are curious and inquisitive and at times selfish and disinterested. It is all part of the human experience. While it would be nice to only have the “good” stuff, we can no more do this as one could “keep the mountains and do away with the valleys”. Life has its ups and downs. And it is good this is the case.

    I guess the at the core, what I am trying to say is that it is okay to let one’s kids do what they will. The best we can do as parents is to try to expose them to as many things as possible and see what sticks. And what sticks may not be what we would personally want, but it is ever so important to keep in mind that our children are people in their own right. They will live their lives and make their own mistakes as we all have. Trusting them to do so is part of letting go and letting them become of their own. We have to let our children grow.

    I’ll close by sharing a story. Many years ago, my eldest son Zach played little league baseball. He didn’t do this for long, as he decided it wasn’t much fun, but that is another story… At any rate, one Saturday morning at a game I had a conversation with the mother of one of his teammates and the conversation moved to video games, in particular, the hand-held Nintendo gameboy units. Zach had a gameboy and played the thing constantly. He loved that thing. The woman which whom I was speaking had some very strict rules regarding her son’s gameboy. He had to check it out and could only play it for an hour at a time a limited number of days a week. She felt that this device was nothing short of a waste of time and was very concerned about limiting the time her son spent with it.

    Now my experience with these handheld gaming devices had been decidedly different. As I said, Zach loved his gameboy and played it a lot. Now what is interesting is that he had gotten this neat toy rather young… as when he was three. Now Zach also loved Pokemon. He loved the TV show, and he loved the gameboy Pokemon games. Now, these Pokemon games where text based adventure games on the gameboy. Early on, he would come to me and ask me to read the text to him, so he would know what to do next, etc. But because he loved Pokemon so, he was *highly* motivated to read that text himself and in short order he was reading like a pro (and enjoying the heck out of those games). I would love to claim that my child was reading at three because of my great parenting skills and the time I spent with him with the appropriate Caldecott awarding winning books, but the truth is he learned to read so early because he loved Pokemon and he loved playing his handheld gameboy.

    I guess the moral of the story is: Don’t limit your children by your own imagination. Let them grow, even if it frightens you or you don’t understand it.

  2. Thank you for the long and thoughtful comment, Brian! Do you think being a Buddhist has affected your parenting? (I imagine so.) Is it something you’re conscious of, or something that happens organically (the intersection between Buddhism and parenting)? Do your kids fight and compete with each other and, if so, how do you handle that?

  3. Hi Karla! I definitely think being a Buddhist has affected my parenting. I would say that for the most part it happens organically, although I can certainly describe how it affects my relationship with my kids and how I parent. I think it has made me more accepting of when things don’t go according to plan and has allowed me to get the most out of any given situation and more willing to let life unfold without feeling the need to control it. I feel this allows for more serendipity with the kids as we go about our lives. Some of the best times have been unplanned. When things are not going well, this helps to weather the storm and not get stressed out about it, which I think leads to a more rapid and more peaceful resolution.

    The relation between the Zach, who is 16 and the younger kids Jude (11) and Luke (7) is very peaceful, I think mostly because of the age difference – they are just in different worlds. Luke sometimes views Jude as his obligatory playmate which occasionally causes a problem when Jude wants to do something by himself. For the most part, however, they get along well.

    When there are conflicts we generally deal with it by taking a moment to talk to both kids and see if a reasonable compromise can be made, or if there is another activity to pursue. From a parenting perspective I tend to think of it in a broad sense – it is less about handling a specific situation in a particular way. General principles of kindness, respect and reciprocity color specific actions.

    We face the normal challenges, getting the kids to do their homework can present a challenge from time to time, although for the most part they do well. Jude tends to lose focus and dilly-dally, which can result in homework taking longer than it should. Luke will generally plow through, but requires more supervision (which should be expected for his age.) But again, the focus we try to keep is one of broader ideas; that the world is interesting and is fun to learn about, that being able to write well is a valuable skill, and being an educated person offers a richer and deeper life experience. And we will allow the kids opinions on their assignments and often agree: Yes, having to write the spelling words you already know how to spell three times each on Wednesday is kinda silly, but let’s just get that done and out of the way and besides, it is easy! And we also cut them some slack from time to time. Not long ago, Jude was feeling very overwhelmed by a particularly hard week. Some bit of homework or the other wasn’t completed, but in the larger scheme of things this isn’t a big deal. But we turned that into a teachable moment, and encouraged him to talk to his teacher about why it wasn’t done. I think the lesson learned that you can actually talk to your teacher about your education was the more valuable lesson. She granted an extension and more importantly Jude learned how to take ownership of his learning.

    I’ve rambled long enough. I do enjoy your blog. It is an interesting window into you as a person and I enjoy getting to know you.

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