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