435. Separate Identities

A friend recently asked me what to do about or how to think about her son, who is beginning to define himself. The definitions children come up with are often very different from what we had in mind when we started parenting, and very different from what we saw during the first few years. And they’re often very different from anything we hoped our children would grow to be.
I find it useful, when a child is going through something I don’t understand, to think about my own childhood. When I started defining myself, what was I thinking and feeling?
First of all, I had to establish myself as a separate person, with an identity of my own. This meant a lot to me. I felt as if my parents’ identities were strong, and establishing my own self was going to be a big job. During what I consider the beginning of my separation, I got involved in politics. I joined Young
Americans for Freedom, and at our high school, the Young Conservative Club. At the local shopping mall, I handed out leaflets in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. And I had lots of political debates with my parents.
I didn’t think I was rebelling. I thought I’d discovered a point of view that my parents would soon discover if I did my job right. I knew my parents were liberals, but I thought that was only because they hadn’t thought much about politics. Now that I was thinking about it, they’d come around. Then we’d all rally behind the Arizona senator, and maybe attend his inauguration. My parents and their friends said I was just rebelling, and that bothered me; I wanted them to think about the substance of what I was saying, not write it off as rebellion. And it really bothered me when Goldwater himself said young people were rebelling against their liberal parents.
I didn’t stay conservative for long. The more I learned about myself, the less conservative politics fit me. But I went to college far away from my parents, and went on to live a life that didn’t include them very much. It took me a long time to establish my identity, and it hurt my parents that they weren’t allowed to be part of that. (Actually, in a way, they were a big part of it, but I stayed away during most of my search.)
Now, my parents are my friends. As I make decisions about my life, I sometimes ask for their opinions, and sometimes use their input. They value my thinking, too.
Now to apply all this to my friend, whose son is much younger than I was during my Goldwater days, but is already beginning to define himself in a way that separates him from his parents. I know that children today rebel earlier than they used to. I know that it’s something that happens. I’d love to prescribe an antidote, but if there is one, I don’t know about it. The best I can do is suggest that you have a clear idea of what’s important to you, and remember that your child, who may look and sound different from the child you dreamed he would be, is nevertheless probably way up there on your list.

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