Parenting

Love Your Children for Who They Are, Not Who You Want Them to Be

Once again my toddler fights his nap as he has every day from the time he was three weeks old. (Yes, I have this documented.) Today I’m in a good mood so I roll with it, packing him into the car and driving off bound for who knows where.

Somehow I wind up in my mother’s old neighborhood and, even more ironically, I find her old house. I know this is it because it looks the same as it did in the few old pictures I recall seeing in what feels like a few lifetimes ago now. Immediately I’m reminded of my grandfather, Harry. I shoot him a quick mental “hello” as he had requested I do from time to time before his death nearly a decade ago.

“What do you think of your great-grandson?” I find myself asking him, knowing he’d disapprove of my habitual naptime drives.

“He’s gotta learn,” I hear the wily old man say. That’s the earthly Harry, the tough nut I knew growing up, who never pulled a punch and lived by the motto “tell it like it is.” I’m pretty sure his babies never cried. They were probably too scared to.

The heavenly Harry, the one who has found perfect peace adds, “What do I know? Just love him, Suse. Love him for who he is. That’s more than I ever did.”

My grandfather was an imperfect man who died with a lot of regrets. I know this because he once told my mother, the child he never wanted, on his deathbed that if he could do it all over again he would, only better. My mother was supposed to be a boy. When she was born, he stormed out of the hospital and didn’t go back for three days. My mother found this out at a family party from a rather buzzed uncle when she was a teenager. It was one in a litany of many sad tales that made up the relationship (or lack thereof) she had with her father.

Whether that was really the heavenly Harry I hold in my mind’s eye speaking to me or not, the point was clear. Being a parent is the most humbling job you’ll ever take on as a human being on this planet. You start out thinking you know everything. Within 24 hours of new life you realize you know nothing. Slowly you begin to accept that everything is a guessing game and your success is based solely in the quality of your own critical thinking skills and ability to stay cool under pressure. Oh, and your willingness to give away every single inch of yourself: Every want, every desire, every selfish opinion you have about your life and your child’s.

I’ve gone crazy trying to get my son to take his naps for over a year, to no avail. Eventually I came to adapt one of my father’s favorite sayings about picky eaters to picky sleepers: “When he’s tired, he’ll sleep.” I try to remind myself of that when I’m so exhausted I’m ready to gouge my eyes out. It works. Sometimes. Other times I’m just staring at him with a dropped jaw, exclaiming, “Why can’t you sleep already?!” (He usually replies with this really cute, inquisitive look followed by a point in the direction of more play.)

Me fighting against his circadian rhythm is about as effective as my grandfather fighting against my mother’s biology. It’s also as effective as pushing your growing child to reach developmental milestones according to a pediatrician’s timing, play sports, become a computer programmer, get a Master’s degree, get married, buy a house and start producing grandchildren by the time they’re 30.

Some things you can teach. Things like morals, discipline, and self-awareness that enhance the natural gifts, talents and abilities of your child can be taught. I can teach my child to relax when he’s tired, but only he can fall asleep on his own. If I hold his energy against him, am I really teaching him what he needs to know? Or am I trying to bully him into being the kid I want him to be?

“How many hours should a baby sleep?” Dr. Janusz Korczak wrote, “As many as she needs to.”

Imagine how much happier every new mom would be if every ounce of parenting advice she encountered was punctuated with the simple phrase, “Love your children for who they are, not what you want or expect them to be.”

And so, we take the scenic route. We play a little longer, laugh a little harder and binge drink coffee here and there. And in it all we learn how to love life for what it is, not what we think it should be.