The other day my 30-year-old brother ate his 3-year-old’s preschool snacks. A week’s worth of them. For breakfast. Neither the wife nor the child was thrilled. There were reports of tears. This was not an isolated incident.
There are those who would say my brother is lacking in self-control. Undisciplined. Impulsive.
His colleagues, however, call him an incredible improviser. A dedicated musician who will stay up half the night composing a new piece.
Two sides of the same coin, I suppose.
It’s not really all that different with our children is it? As part of my job, I often administer a social/emotional screening questionnaire to parents about their young children. This brief but decently comprehensive screening tool gives a snapshot of some of the things that challenge us the most about our children’s behavior. I love that I get to go over this questionnaire with parents, because often something very cool happens. The last question asks: “What do you enjoy most about your child?” And so, so much of the time the parents’ answer to this is a version of the same personality traits they find most challenging.
The parent of the child who has frequent temper tantrums answers, “I love how intense she is.” The parent of the withdrawn, shy child answers, “She’s so thoughtful and sensitive.” The parent of the child who is into everything, who can’t be left alone for a second answers, without hesitation, “His fire.”
Many of us are able to see this in ourselves and in the adults we love; my sensitivity led me to become a therapist, my husband’s stubbornness is a frequent asset in the workplace. But in young children we often seem to want to shut these qualities down. And with good reason — when my son is on his fifth meltdown of the day I really just want the damn crying to stop. But if I can find the strength to join with him and help him work through these feelings, I think he’ll be better off.
Because when we don’t do this, when we instead press the child who is paralyzed with fear on the playground to just forge out on her own, or tell the child crying about something that doesn’t seem important to get over it, or say nothing but “no, no, no” to the child who needs to explore every inch of his world, we are essentially saying to them, “I do not see you. I do not understand you. I do not respect who you are.”
To some, that may sound dramatic. And I’m not advocating for completely letting children slide, but the foundation of solid mental health is first accepting ourselves. And how can children do that if their parents constantly shut down the very essence of who they are? Instead of trying to extinguish these (frequently annoying) traits, it is our job to respect, nurture, and, yes, harness them. And in doing so, we allow for the possibility that the very traits that drive us crazy will lead our children to greatness.