I thought I knew exactly who he was, this pint-sized person. Barely three years old, and I had him figured out. I paid attention, you see. I saw the way he tensed up with large groups of people. I saw his deep discomfort around strangers, loud noises, dark rooms, and anything unfamiliar. His preschool teachers told me he was “uncomfortable in his skin” (just about the worst thing a mother can hear about her baby), but I saw it too: he wouldn’t make eye contact with other kids, he certainly would never hug or even hold hands with them, and he only wanted to engage with a few choice adults.
“He’s an introvert,” we concluded.
“He could use occupational therapy,” his preschool teachers suggested, year after year. “This is just who he is.”
We accepted him, saw him, and thought we knew him inside and out, now and forever. My husband and I mused on the kind of adult he might be, the ways we could help him navigate his personality quirks and social anxieties in high school and beyond.
Cut to today, with our six-year-old kindergartener. He not only came out of his shell, he left that bad boy in the lonely dust as he ran off with his friends.
This kid will make friends anywhere he goes. He wanted to invite close to 40 people to his birthday party, friends from all corners of his life, insisting that each and every one was important to him. He lives for his friendships, with neighborhood boys traipsing in and out of my house every day. He thrives in big group settings, right in the center of attention, radiating confidence. He just might be the most confident, self-assured, comfortable-in-his-skin child I’ve ever met.
“He’s such a social butterfly,” another mom in the pick-up line remarks, “He’s so outgoing!”
Who they are now isn’t who they will be.
In a short six years, I’ve learned that parenting is a series of “hellos” and “goodbyes.” It’s reacquainting ourselves with new interests, new challenges, and sometimes an entirely new person. There’s a rhythm to letting go and holding on, like the ebb and flow of the tide, like the wax and wane of the moon, like the cyclical nature of everything. Who they are now isn’t who they will be because that’s the way life works — we’re all constantly evolving and changing.
We don’t like to think about that, do we? We like to imagine a world with a stable equinox, where everything and everyone is labeled, predictable and understood. We like to imagine that we know our children based on a stage, or two, or even ten. But the truth is that we can only know them right now, right in this moment. Who they will be is completely irrelevant, impossible to know.
That doesn’t stop us from sticking on our family labels — this is the artsy one, and this is the future scientist, and this one, phew, she’ll give us a run for our money one day. We think we can see it all, as if the maps have already been printed. Too often we pigeon-hole our kids, expecting them to fit into these boxes that we constructed while our kids were still developing. Just because my son loved show tunes at age three doesn’t mean he’ll be a tap-dancing music man. Just because he asked for a telescope and microscope for Christmas doesn’t mean he’ll be a life-changing scientist one day. It means he’s exploring his interests, his personality. Some things stick, some things get washed away with the tide of time.
What our kids like, think, say, and do isn’t who they are.
Don’t we all deserve a little space to grow into ourselves and explore our interests, without hearing, “But you love X, Y, and Z,” until we actually start believing that we do? How many of our interests and ideas are genuine, and how many were planted in another life, another phase, that’s long gone? How often do we live up to behavioral expectations in our families, afraid to be honest about our hearts and growth?
I don’t want my child to play a role — not for my benefit. I don’t want to be stuck in a time warp, desperately clinging on to the ideas I had about who he is.
Who they are now is important, and real, and maybe long-lasting. Or maybe not. Maybe the next season will come, and you’ll be left looking at this child — slightly taller, slightly different, but still familiar — and whisper, “Who are you?”
Instead of answering the question, we’ll pay attention. And then let that go. And then pay attention again. On and on, like the ocean succumbing to the changing tide.More On