576. But Then Again…

In my essay entitled “Knowing Thyself” I made the point that adults shouldn’t be telling children who they are – that people ought to be free to figure that out on their own, and parents and other adults ought to concentrate on accepting those self-definitions. But a friend of mine who has preadolescent children read that essay, thought about his own children, and suggested to me that maybe parents can have a bigger role to play – that maybe there are times when children want and need help figuring out who they are.
Having the parents and children I have, and having experienced growing up and parenting the way I did, my friend’s point hadn’t occurred to me. My parents spent a lot of energy defining me as I was growing up (or I INTERPRETED what they said as attempts to define me), and later on, I spent a lot of energy working to undo some of that and figure out who I was going to be. And my daughters staunchly resisted any efforts I made (or they THOUGHT I was making) to define them. We’re all still friends; we were all flexible enough to learn about each other and adjust our ways of seeing each other.
But that’s just my construction of my own history. My friend’s suggestion reminded me that other people have other histories, and construct them differently. And besides, we learn from more than our own histories; we learn by observing and listening to each other, and by thinking. Even though I would have preferred less help than I was given (or different help) with my own struggles for self-definition, it could well be that you would have preferred more help than you got. Or maybe the amount of help you got from the adults in your life was just enough for you.
And the amount of help we get and give is only part of the issue; maybe for some people, the nature of the help is a bigger part. As children work to get to know themselves, maybe parents can help them by getting involved. I’ve written hundreds of essays based on my own thoughts and experiences, and the responses I get from people often tell me that what I’ve concluded is true for them, too. But luckily, once in a while someone reminds me that there are other ways to see things – that my own thoughts and experiences, though often helpful to other people, are not universal.
So now let me try to make the point my friend made: given how complicated life can get, our children may sometimes have trouble figuring out who they are, and maybe it’s not such a bad idea for adults to give them some thoughtful help. If adults listen well to children, putting aside their own preconceptions and thinking about who their children really are, maybe children’s journeys of self-discovery won’t have to be as lonely as they sometimes are.

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