Realizing You Do Not Own Your Child’s Life (and Other Parenting Challenges)

Children ring bells in us. It is as if we were programmed to recognize ourselves in them, often unconsciously. Our instinctive response to feelings, vulnerabilities, and turning points experienced by the offspring touch upon similar vulnerabilities in us at about the same age.

This personal reaction is a historical one triggered by seeing the self in them, a kind of identification.

Significant and challenging things happen to all of us as we grow up. You are now the dear parent. They happened to you, too.

Each new life is vulnerable and tender, not yet hardened to defend itself. Perhaps you suffered humiliation or felt pressured, ignored, bullied, or worse. Maybe you pursued a course you later identified was wrong for you.

The paternal or maternal role now requires thoughtful consideration of how to proceed. Will you give your offspring what they need to avoid the damage you sustained? Perhaps you might push them to make different life selections or sidestep wrong turns you continue to regret.

The decision you made might have been running with the troubled crowd, sex, drugs, or giving up on school to emphasize sports. Numerous possibilities exist.

Haunted by the shadow of the road not taken, you are in danger again. So is the boy or girl in your charge, though not necessarily from the risk you encountered.

Time to look in the mirror.

I am suggesting you, dear parent. Your place in the minor’s life places him or her in jeopardy if you should fumble the job of being a mom or dad.

You face a test of your adequacy as a guardian, one who can separate your own identity from that of your youngster.

For example, your authority allows you to demand this admiring schoolgirl to study. No one will stop you from ominous hovering and harsh enforcement of failure to ensure the desired goal.

The power imbalance also permits you to restrict her participation in social life with people you decide are bad (even when almost everyone looks dangerous to you).

These decisions carry a substantial downside. Take another example. Detective-like inspection for signs of substance abuse (or any other actions you find uncomfortable) may drive the son who loves you toward the behavior you wish to prevent.

Regardless of your motives, results count more than noble intentions.

Other possible pitfalls also await moms, dads — kids and young adults.

Again the question hangs in the air. What do you do with your individual history of upbringing by your folks? You now occupy the role they did.

If you believe they were always right, you might impose a similar manner of child-rearing used with you. If the young one is like you and your parents did a fine job, this style could work.

But what if he isn’t like you? What if the circumstances of his life and the time in which you both now live have changed? Will the default tendency to do unto your child what was done unto you still suffice?

Do you instead believe the teen’s grandparents made dire mistakes with you?

Yes, you say. Will you then dispose of every thought and action they had? Will you throw out even their preference of one faith over another, fish over fowl, and their enjoyment of vigorous exercise?

Understanding you are not your offspring (and he is not you) is essential, no matter the likenesses. To the degree his temperament and inborn talents are different from yours, basing your parenting strategy on what you needed is questionable.

The blueprint for fostering any unformed life must be tailored to whomever he is. When parents say they treated all their children in the same way, I always imagine the fitness of such an approach was doubtful with at least one.

Here is another piece of hard-won advice. I am assuming you are a loving custodian of your kids in all these examples. You gave your infant life, an experience beyond words, the most astonishing of your life. Wishing the best for this helpless, beautiful creature is your desire. She depends upon you for everything.

However, with time, if the child proceeds along the usual route, he acquires skills and the goal of independent life. A moment arrives when he wants to make choices with which you disagree. Say, a different career, school, moving to a new location, or his own vision of the place of religion in his life.

To the extent your ideas don’t match, reasoned discussions should not assume he is mistaken. He may be the wise one in this. In any case, remember this: you gave him life, but you do not own his life.

Our daughters and sons take the captain’s chair on their voyage into the future. They often want our support, but they do not want us as their judge.

Check the proprietorship records or the birth certificate of your kids. What you will find, perhaps in invisible ink, is a rental agreement. The maternal and paternal responsibilities of direction and safekeeping last for a short while, not forever.

After that, the baton is passed to the next runner in the relay race we call world history. He might not be everything you envisioned. Do not let your preconceptions block you from honoring the best in him. He could be less in some areas, but he also may be much more.


The top image is Mother and Child by Pablo Picasso, 1921. In second place comes Oswaldo Guayasamin’s 1989 Ternura. The last masterpiece is Mother and Child by Wilfredo Lam, 1957. The first and final works were sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago. Guayasamin’s painting came from

8 thoughts on “Realizing You Do Not Own Your Child’s Life (and Other Parenting Challenges)

  1. I wish my parents embraced who I was as a person, not their failed attempts as a mini-them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. drgeraldstein

    A “mini-them.” A terrific phrase. It captures a major aspect of the topic. Thank you, Dragonfly!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Parenting did not come easy to me as a single mother of two sons. I focused on working to provide for our physical needs, to pay for a good education for them, and to keep them out of harm’s way. Before they had even come into my life, I held to be true what Kahlil Gibran shared in his book, The Prophet,” about children: “They come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” I raised them with my Christian values on what is deemed good and immoral behavior, but did not impose my religious beliefs on them. I allowed them to choose their own professional path and have supported them in their choice. I do not take ownership for their successes. My greatest challenge today as a parent is watching in silence–any comment I dare to make is rebuked as being judgemental–as they make choices that I know will not end well for them. I brace myself for the fallout whenever it comes again.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. drgeraldstein

    It sounds like you did a good job of parenting, Rosaliene. The circumstances were doubtless more challenging than I can imagine. The Gibran quote was new to me, but very wise. Unfortunately, the letting go of our children also entails some amount of what a therapist would call “therapeutic distance” if we were talking about his emotional involvement with his client. When we give back our children’s lives to them (once they are old enough) some measure of self-protection by the parent is necessary. We cannot live and die with their decisions, though in the most serious of cases this is often impossible since we do still care. The rebukes are painful, sometimes to the extreme, as you clearly have experienced. I hope your sons learn from their mistakes. That, of course, is now up to them. Your comment is much appreciated.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors.” Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner

    Liked by 2 people

  6. drgeraldstein

    Nor do you necessarily get the one or ones you could easily parent. And yet, who else can be expected to do the job except for the parent? Certainly not the child. And, even with the best parents and the best circumstances and the brightest, most beautiful, most talented child, there will still be challenges. Thank you for the interesting quote, Brewdun. And, to say one more thing, who among us, even if we could create a child who was the fulfillment of our best imagination, would know fully how to prepare him for the world of today and tomorrow, a world-changing in a way unimaginable at any previous point in history.

    Liked by 2 people

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