Mitch Albom said it best in The Five People You Meet In Heaven when he wrote, “All parents ruin their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers.”
This is a concept a newer parent may not understand. Only those looking back on their children's earlier years understand the depth of this truth.
None of us set out to ruin our children, of course. Our intentions have been cloaked in a fierce drive toward success, achievement and probability. Raising the best/most famous/president/scientist/artist/athlete was a job many of us took on once our children let out their first cry.
I should know — I raised four children.
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‘Get Off Her Journey’
Managing the lives of my children was running along just fine until a therapist advised me to get off my daughter's journey and get back on my own.
During a family therapy session, I'd been discussing how I was having trouble getting my teenage daughter to exercise and eat better. I was concerned about her pubescent weight gain, explaining: “But her health is my responsibility! She's 15 and is creating habits that will determine her future life…”
The therapist interrupted. “I repeat: Get off her journey. What she eats is none of your business.”
“But I'm her mother.”
“And you always will be. However, she is no longer a small child. She is fully conscious, intelligent and capable of living her life the best way she sees fit. Do not ever mention her body or her weight to her ever again. It is none of your business.”
He'd admonished me in front of my daughter. I wanted to argue with him — I mean really argue — but his primary speciality was the treatment of eating disorders and I had just handed myself to him on a silver platter.
I recognized immediately that I had become the kind of mother who pushed too hard in a relentless path toward perfection and achievement. As a single parent, I'd felt I needed to push hard enough for two parents.
My daughter had been my responsibility for so many years; every aspect of her life, health and survival had fallen to me. But I recognized the wisdom in the therapist's stark words and took his advice.
My daughter did eventually find her own way, and it includes eating well and exercising. I could have done tremendous damage during those years had I continued to push her to live the way I thought she should, damaging her self-esteem and our relationship irrevocably.
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‘Stop Living Through Me’
My next lesson in parenting was delivered via my oldest son. He'd been asked to leave the boarding school I'd gone broke sending him into. (I had no business spending so much money, but oh, his potential, I'd privately lamented!)
Then he'd chosen to live with his father in another state during senior year of high school. I weathered these disappointments, respected his autonomy and reminded myself to stay off his journey. After graduation from high school, he informed me that he'd turned down scholarships and would not attend college immediately.
I was crushed. His IQ was so high the boarding school had recommended he pursue a career in astrophysics.
I'd worked so hard for my degrees and was proud of being the first college graduate in my lineage. The idea that my oldest son wouldn't attend college was so foreign to me that his words may as well have been delivered in another language.
I argued. I pleaded. I said this was a great mistake. He'd started kindergarten early. He'd routinely attended classes geared toward older children even when he was as young as 5. He'd always been ahead and I was always behind him, pushing.
“Stop living vicariously through me,” he finally said in exasperation. “I want a break. I want to work for a year.”
It was all he needed to say. I was living vicariously through him, and my desire to see him win a full scholarship to an Ivy League university was my own dream.
I admit to being impressed by his spot-on analysis, and I begrudgingly accepted my disappointment.
I am happy to report that he did wind up going to college and was elected the youngest president in his fraternity's history. He eschewed the scholarships, but is working his way through my alma mater.
I am happy about his accomplishments, but more impressed by the fact that he knows himself and is unafraid to push for what he feels is best.
Our Children Teach Us
My next two children have followed in the footsteps of their siblings and have also done remarkable jobs in teaching me to be a better parent.
They've offered gentle reminders such as, “I am not you,” or “I know what I'm doing. Trust me.” My personal favorite is, “I'm no longer a child. Stop treating me like one.”
Parenting babies, toddlers and adolescents was cake. The difficult part came in recognizing that my job was finished. My children had grown into adults and possessed keen abilities to think, reason, plan and determine not only what is best for them but how to go for it.
I stay off their journeys now, secretly delighting when I am invited along. My heart smiles as I watch my children do whatever they set out to do even though it's not necessarily what I would have chosen. I've learned to observe and accept their autonomy.
So while the details of our story may not be what I would have written, the results are clear: My adult children have absorbed the prints of their handler. They have learned how to push themselves.
The surprise was in recognizing that the handler likewise absorbs the prints of its children.
For more on parenting, check out The Overprotected Kid in The Atlantic Monthly.