This morning while decorating the Christmas tree, my son let me in on a little secret. Let’s call it a philosophy, even, a guiding principal by which the four-year-old makes decisions.
“Daddy, whatever you like, I don’t like, because you like it. And whatever you don’t like, then I like, because you don’t like it. Does that make sense?”
Well, Merry Christmas to you too, kid! I thought, as he wickedly smiled at me with his arms crossed, gloating because he’s hip to the age old system of how to drive parents crazy, a rubric that he’ll surely employ into his teenage years, and probably beyond. I couldn’t help but feel a modicum of frustration by his declaration, but you know what emotion came on even stronger? Admiration. What a clever, self-aware little pain-in-the-butt my kid is.
“It makes a kind of sense, sure,” I admitted.
And it does, really. There are times when kids mimic, taking on your attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and even your sayings, cobbling together an identity from bits and pieces of your personality like a magpie. In most households, this behavior is rewarded with praise and encouraged, because an underlying tenet of American families is that your children are extensions of you. A child might even be punished for feeling differently from their parents, for not being as devoutly religious, or having the same sexual orientation, say.
Yet a large part of becoming an independent adult is differentiating from your parents — doing things that are blatantly not what they do. We’ve all been there, right? The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s album Blood Sugar Sex Magic became my favorite record for a brief period only when my dad made me turn it off for being overly explicit.
Coming down hard on a kid for feeling differently than you about something makes it easy for the child to rebel. I don’t mean acting in ways that are risky or rash — all kids, whether toddlers or teenagers, make unsafe decisions sometimes. I’m talking about a kid listening to music that drives you up a wall, or hanging out with friends you don’t approve of, or doing any number of things just to get under your skin. In other words, if you allow your child to push your buttons, then they’ll push away. Why not? There’s pleasure in saying no, in throwing a wrench in the family’s smooth functioning and mucking up the gears. Problems tend to attract attention, which kids of all ages desire.
Seems to me that the healthier, if harder, approach is to take a deep breath and let it go — don’t let their differences of opinion bother you too much. That’s not to imply you should let your kid do whatever they want to do, rather, don’t take it personally when they don’t want to do what you want to do.
For example, at lunch, Felix ate pasta while I had a quesadilla, because we don’t have to eat the same things. Similarly, at TV time I’d like him to watch Sesame Street, but have come to accept that he prefers Woody Woodpecker, no matter how annoying I find the cackling bird. However, when Felix tried changing music that I had just put on, I drew the line. He chose an album to listen to, and then it was my turn to choose an album. We don’t have to agree, but we do have to take turns and be respectful of one another’s differences.
If you communicate love and trust, and take a legitimate interest in your child’s opinions, while also insisting that your own opinions have validity, then you needn’t worry about your child wanting to be different from you. There will always be a solid foundation for a loving relationship with your child, one that will last into their adult life, whether or not they make the same decisions that you would. Even if your child adopts polar-opposite political views to ones you hold, you’ll still have a mutual love and respect for one another, and find ways of talking to one another too. That’s because you recognize your child as an individual person, and not an extension of yourself, or a piece in a family structure that you oversee, and perhaps, hopefully, your child will feel the same way about you.