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Saturday; January 30, 2010: Three Boys, Three Challenges

            As a mother of three boys, I have never ceased to be amazed how differently each boy approaches relationships. I understand the explanations of birth order and its impact (the difference that develops because of variations in parent and sibling interactions). I understand the need of each child to carve out his own nitch in the family order. But as a mother, I swear kids have an underlying personality from the beginning and the best a parent can hope for is to guide each child in a healthy direction.

            My youngest wore his heart on his sleeve, was always searching out new friends, and was the most influenced by peer pressure. His emotional highs and lows were based on the way he thought the outer world was judging him.  The middle son was content to be alone or with others. He observed the world around him while remaining centered and content. The oldest saw the world as something that either brought him what he wanted, or conspired to make him miserable.

        How did each child react to challenges---a bigger kid at school singling them out and bullying them, the crushing defeat of their sports team, a big assignment in their least favorite subject?  The youngest would come home crushed and say, “Nobody likes me. I’m worthless.” Or “My team lost the game because I struck out.” “I know I can’t do this. I’m the only kid who won’t have the report completed.”  The middle child would shrug his shoulders and say, “So and so must have been having a bad day,” or “We lost the game; I made mistakes but did about the same as everyone else.” “What a dumb report. Can you wake me up early tomorrow so I can finish the last of it before school.”  He would wander off to his room and pull into his own little universe.  The oldest would come home angry and stay angry. “That jerk was picking on me. No one gives me the respect I deserve,” or “Of course we lost: our team sucks.  I hate having to play sports.” “I see no point to doing this report. I know the subject and this assignment is only busy work for the dumb kids who can’t learn it in class.”

          Books can only give you so much help rearing children. Since it seemed impossible to alter the way each of my children ‘saw’ life, I thought maybe I could smooth off the rough edges.

           For the youngest, it meant talking about other people lashing out in anger because of their own inner turmoil, about being true to oneself in the midst of trying circumstances. I was continually helping him break down challenges into parts, so he could see which parts he could work on and which were dependent on other people’s actions or the way circumstances presented themselves. I pointed to his inner strengths, and helped him get started on what he always saw as overwhelming school projects. When I see him now, a guy who dutifully follows through on obligations, confidently thrives on physical challenges, and is overly considerate and supportive in his personal relationships, the person he’s become is so much more than anything he and I had worked on that I shake my head and wonder where he found the grounding and depth of character.  He is a wonderment and I can’t take credit.

            The challenge with my middle son was not to forget him. His other brothers demanded attention. The middle son was so self-contained, letting problems roll off his back and focusing on his own goals, that I had to take time to sit down with him, to make him verbally express his own needs. When he was in high school, I would hear him say, “It’s been a tough day for me; I need peace and quiet, and maybe some extra consideration until I’m ready to start interacting with the family again”, or, “If you have a problem with what I do or don’t do, I’d prefer you approach me and tell me in this way……”.  I could only stare at him. Emotional stable, he somehow learned to express his needs simply and assertively. I don’t think that came from my efforts. This was a kid who had his emotional life more together as a teenager than I did as an adult.

          The challenge with my oldest son was to help him see that, in the clash of two people with different objectives, it was important to find a solution that addressed both needs. I encouraged him to see from other people’s viewpoint, to identify his own needs, and to express those needs in constructive ways.  Because he was my ‘sensitive child’, easily knocked off balance by other people’s negative emotions, I was always reminding him of the need to let people own their problems and keep his focus on his own emotional center.  If others couldn't keep up with him, extend a helping hand. Did any of my advice sink in?

            If I made any progress, it disappeared when the oldest went to live with his dad for his last years of high school. After all the years of my heart-to-heart talks (which probably ran counter to his natural inclinations) this son absorbed his father’s beliefs like a dry sponge absorbs water: you only help friends because they are only temporarily down on their luck; people in real poverty are never going to get themselves out of the gutter, so you’re throwing effort and good money away; if you feel any obligation to help society improve the lot of others (and it's really not your responsibility), then focus on your own business success and create new jobs.

            This son has grown more than just resistant to the idea of organized charity. He is friendly and generous enough when it comes to helping friends and family. But he also goes out of his way NOT to give to the less fortunate, even when everyone else at work is contributing for… say, disaster relief.  If I bring up the subject of giving to the community or to the world, I can hear the tone in his voice and feel his feet firmly planted in resistance.  I shake my head, convinced I’ve failed this child. Did I push too hard against his basic nature? Did I not get far enough inside his head to seek out the right motivational approach?

         I understand researchers have found an altruistic gene. How was the DNA for that genetic tendency split and recombined for each child? The family has always said the oldest was born a clone of his father. His father helps only friends who might someday be able to return the favor or who will be appropriately and forever grateful in all future get-togethers. How much of that attitude is nature versus nurture, and did I fail in my duty as a mother to provide enough nurture to overcome nature?

          For me, rearing children never turned into a molding procedure, where I could push and prod some not-yet solidified form into a desired shape. It was more like digging channels and shoring up the banks of a creek, hoping to affect future direction.

        Now I stand on the bank, watching water flow over and past my earlier attempts at directing natural meanderings.  I watch each river grow in its own time, finding its own path to some greater destination, and wonder if the only lesson I’ve learned is that there is no benchmark for success as a parent because children are their own people, living their own lives and making decisions based on their life experiences, not necessarily ours. 

          I evolved and learned about myself in the process of parenting. Perhaps that inner growth, and the joy of watching a grown child's life move forward, is the best a parent can hope for.

Posted on Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 10:03AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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