Of all of the pearls of wisdom that fell from the lips of my dear wife (Susan Shilcock), perhaps the wisest and most useful to overwrought parents were the comforting words, “They are who they are.” Her intended implication was to suggest that we let them be, and that we, as parents go (more) with the flow. As Ma Ingalls used to advise her daughter Laura, we need to stop distressing ourselves (Little House on the Prairie books). I add now that you might as well follow Susan’s advice because there is no use in doing otherwise—it doesn’t work, no matter how hard you try. Furthermore, there is the supportive genius of Oscar Wilde, whose words dominate a wall poster in the OC Farmhouse: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
I was reminded of Susan’s advice recently when I was called aside a couple of times by parents concerned with the way their son or daughter was developing—or not developing, as the case might be. “He’s almost eight and still doesn’t want to read or do math,” one said. “She just wants to play house or play outside; she shows little or no interest in the field trips I arrange or in any planned activities,” said another. “He wants to have friends but then he plays mostly by himself even when they are around,” is a similar comment I have heard expressed before, along with, “I’m sure she’ll outgrow [whatever] but I’m not sure I can wait that long.” But what if she doesn’t ?!, I thought.
In my response to one of the parents, I shared my perspective based on nearly fifty years of hearing (and feeling myself) these and other expressions of parental anxiety. The first comments that I had to offer were stories of young people who had shown certain inclinations early in life that both “experts” and the common culture tended to identify as problematic. Problematic to whom, I asked rhetorically. Problematic why, I added. Who is to say that a certain behavior, personality trait, habit of mind or quirky interest means that something is wrong?
Sometimes, of course, there is something amiss and we should attend to it. For example, if our young person is constantly tripping (and I do mean constantly), or seeming incapable of hearing our concerns (not just not accepting them but actually not even hearing the words), or complaining of headaches doing something that he or she has actually chosen to do, for fun. “When faced with a crying baby,” psychologist Paul Stern said once in a college lecture that I attended, “look first for the open safety pin. Don’t immediately go to a psychiatrist looking to find the source of her angst.” That seemed like common sense to me at the time, and it still does. So when a youth is in distress, by all means look for a root cause, but/and start with the simplest and most obvious ones.
In the case of the “late” reader, therefore, by all means get a proper vision test. (By that I mean one by a developmental optometrist, one who will check the entire vision system and not just use the Snellen Chart to determine acuity.) Other challenges might suggest a hearing test, or a blood test, to rule out some organic source of whatever seems troublesome.
If a two-year-old refuses to sit in a chair for an hour at a time and attend to a project that we have provided, most people would not consider that an indication of a problem, because we wouldn’t expect him to want to do that or even be able to comply for that long. What about a four-year-old, though? Maybe—as in an academic preschool. A five-year-old kindergartener? Even more likely. Then there’s the six-year-old first grader. (Still more likely.) And for the twelve-year-old? No doubt about it!
But the thing is, a hundred years ago, or certainly 150, this was not our expectation of all young people. “Book learnin’”, as Davey Crockett called it, wasn’t presumed to be everyone’s cup of tea—especially in their youth but even as young adults. “She’s an artist, not a math student or history major.” “He belongs out on the sea, not cooped up in a factory let alone a schoolhouse.” In other words, being a “good student”—meaning a compliant academic—was not only not considered the only path to a successful life, it was not the presumed norm for most people. Rather, people were granted the right (and the responsibility!) to craft their own future in their own way—mostly. Those who were forced into apprenticeships for which they had neither the affinity nor the desire tended to either fail miserably or run away, or both. The lucky ones eventually stumbled across a way forward that coincided with their internal program. Observers, seeing their success, would likely state, “he’s a natural,” or “she was born to do this.” Both were recognition of match-up between the internal and external world of the person in question. Expectations grew out of who the youth was, what they were interested in doing and capable of accomplishing, and not what any parent or teacher or other outside “expert” thought was “the right way to be.”
As adults, we recognize that we have the right to make our choices, even if they aren’t what our parents (or friends or even spouses) wish we would do. Young people for the most part do not have that recognized power. Our definitions of what is normal, and thus our expectations of our youth’s behavior, far too often is based on what we want rather than who they are. The resultant non-fit can then lead to a negative judgment, a label that says failure. In far too many cases, these days especially, the results can be catastrophic, to which the level of teen suicides, epidemic of depression, and social anxiety disorders can attest. A far greater group is “merely” unhappy, kept from doing what they really want to be doing and being who they really want to do. All in the name of being normal and thereby supposedly saving both youth and parents from the shame of not fitting in.
My closing recommendation to a particularly anxious parent with whom I spoke to recently was hold off on all of the negative judgments inherited from the experts who identified the youth’s characteristics as being abnormal and problematic. Instead, I urged, look really closely at your young person and take notes on what he/she chooses to do and does with seeming pleasure. Make the assumption that, as Marshall Rosenberg claimed in Non-violent Communication, “all behavior is an attempt to satisfy a legitimate need.” (This is not to suggest that all behaviors are legitimate, only the need that prompted them.) Ask yourself, “What need is he/she addressing with this behavior?” Then give that choice at least a Balanced Response if not automatic acceptance.
For example, suppose a youth is constantly drawn to water: can’t get enough of bath time, is always getting wet whenever there is a creek or a hose around, jumps into the pool even though he/she can’t swim. What does this suggest to you? To me, it says provide as wide a variety of ways to interact with water as I can manage. Look for what it is that makes water so interesting, so irresistible. Feed that interest by reading together books or stories about water, and watch your youth’s response. Are they soaking it in? (Pun intended.) Then keep going. Not so interested? Fine; look for videos that feature water, or take him/her regularly to a favorite creek. Add a magnifying glass to look for microscopic life, a net for capturing who-knows-what, a reference book on creek life to help answer the myriad questions that you can’t answer on your own.
You get the picture: Go with the flow. (Again, intentional attempt at humor.) Honor your young person’s proclivities rather than view them as distractions from your desired outcome. Don’t let others force you to force your youth into a suit that doesn’t fit. And for heaven’s sake, enjoy being a parent. Act more like a grandparent and accept the person that you have in front of you. And while you’re at it, accept the one that you are supposed to be, too, if you aren’t already doing so. After all, hungry people can’t truly feed others.