How to Let Go of the Concept of the ‘Perfect Child’ and Love the One You Have
A newborn baby is a blank slate in her parents’ eyes; a future president, perhaps, or a famous sports star or artist in the making. We know that environment and parenting style have a huge effect on our children’s future, so new parents worry that every action they take will influence their child’s development. But what about those qualities that are inborn, the ones parents can’t control? In other words, what if your child isn’t growing up to be at all the person you expected?
Nature vs. Nurture
Over the years, a debate has raged over whether a person’s identity is forged more by his nature (genetic material and inborn traits) or by nurture (his early experiences in life). The pendulum of popular opinion has swung back and forth between the two poles, but what has become clear is that both elements matter. In other words, even if you could perfectly control your child’s environment, his inborn traits will still influence who he becomes. The interplay of the two factors is what makes each person utterly unique. Renowned psychologist and neuroscientist Donald Hebb, when asked whether nature or nurture contributes more to a person’s personality, answered famously with a question: “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?”
Your Image of the Perfect Child
When parents gaze into their newborn’s face and fall in love, they are falling in love partly with their projection of the future. They imagine a child made perfect (in their eyes) by a perfect upbringing. Good parents put a lot of thought into child-rearing, because they know that how they handle feeding problems, discipline issues, chores, and conversations with their little one will influence the person she becomes. They work hard at instilling self-discipline and self-esteem, and try to raise a kind, thoughtful person who will reflect their values.
Your Real Child Doesn’t Match Your Image
But what happens if your child grows into a person who doesn’t fit with that image? What if your child is born with a development delay, a physical impairment, or a mental health issue? Or what if your child grows into an adult who holds very different values than you? Perhaps your child is transgender or has passionate political viewpoints that are the opposite of your own. Hopefully, you will be willing to accept your child as she is, but you may first need to grieve.
What Other People Think
If your child doesn’t live up to your expectations in some way that carries a stigma, like homosexuality or mental illness, you might be mortified that others will find out. Even if your child simply lacks some quality that is very important among your peer group, like athletic prowess, intelligence, or physical beauty, you may struggle to feel proud of him. It may seem shallow, but humans are social creatures, and very few of us are free of the desire to fit in with our peers. Admitting these concerns to yourself will be the first step in dealing with them.
Conversely, parents who don’t easily accept the news of their child’s cognitive delay or physical disability might be afraid of being seen as ‘monsters’ if they talk about their struggle. These parents might need to be reassured that it is normal for them to have to grieve for the “normal” child of their dreams before they can learn to love the child they’ve been given.
A child with a physical disability might be easier for a cerebral, sedentary family to accept. But if that same child is born into a very active, athletic family, the whole family’s way of life may change, along with their visions of the future. This parent might be giving up all their favorite weekend activities, along with visions of coaching her daughter’s soccer team. Similarly, a gay or transgender child might be easy for parents who already accept alternative sexuality, but parents who sincerely believe that homosexuality is a choice and a sin will need to work hard to hear their child’s reality and learn to love the child they have.
The Grief Process
You may find yourself passing through any or all of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
- Denial: “This cannot be happening. She is mistaken. The doctor is wrong.This is a phase. This can’t be real.”
- Anger: “How dare he do this to us, after all we’ve done! This is so unfair! We don’t deserve this.”
- Bargaining: “God, I will give up all my sins if you will only change this about my child. Son, you cannot live under our roof if you keep insisting that you are gay.”
- Depression: This is a very difficult phase, and you may need the support of a doctor or therapist to get through it. But it helps to know it’s normal, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.
- Acceptance: Coming back to loving your child, in spite of what you perceive as her “flaws.”
Love Them or Lose Them
Some parents get stuck in denial or anger and never accept their children. Usually, that’s the death of the relationship. There aren’t many people in the world whose parents have disciplined them out of being gay or transgender, or whose mental illness has been cured by their parents insisting they ‘snap out of it.’ But the world is full of adults who have completely severed ties with parents who rejected them.
Learning to love the child you have sometimes involved letting go of the child you dreamed of raising. But the child you have needs and deserves your love.