Love the Child You Have

Working with parents, I frequently hear myself saying, “You have to love the child you have – not the child you imagined you would have.” And as a parent, I frequently tell myself the same thing.

Everyone who has children, is expecting a child, or is even contemplating having a child fantasizes about what his or her child will be like. Along with the fears and anxieties (a discussion for another time), we all imagine future scenes: baking cookies together, watching your daughter score the winning goal, attending ballet recitals, listening to your son deliver the valedictory speech, dancing together at your daughter’s wedding – the dreams go on and on. And in this age of social media, our fantasies and expectations are encouraged by the “highlight reel” selves posted by other parents in our online community. Let’s face it – few parents post photos of their child’s first D on a report card.

In reality, every child comes into the world with his or her own unique potential. While parents can have enormous influence, our job is to help our child become his or her best self. Sometimes this is easy – the hockey-playing dad with a daughter who is happiest and most successful on the ice, the bookworm mom with a son who devours literature, the family who rocks out to Queen together, the academic superstar dad whose son has his sights on the Ivy League.

But what about the mismatches? All too often, I see parents who are simply baffled by their children, unable to understand or relate. For these parents, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Remember that being a successful person and being a high achiever is not the same thing. Explore your own values to determine what is truly important.

2. Understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses and set your expectations accordingly. If your child has two left feet, she is unlikely to become a prima ballerina. If your son’s cognitive abilities are in the average range, he will not become valedictorian.

3. Develop an interest in your child’s passion, rather than expecting him or her to follow yours. Introduce children to a variety of activities, and watch for the spark of interest. If your daughter is obsessed with Harry Potter, read the books yourself so you can talk about them with her. If you never played a sport in your life but your son comes to life on the baseball field, go to his games and cheer wildly.

4. Finally, keep in mind that having a relationship with your child is more important than anything he or she will ultimately put on a college application or a resume.

Now, this is not to say that children do not need parental guidance. It is crucial to encourage your child to make her best effort and to follow the rules. It is equally crucial, however, to accept that this may look very different than you imagined it would. As my sister, a wise and joyful mother, once said, “Having kids is like reading a really great book. I can’t wait to turn the page and see what comes next.”

Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist