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The Importance of Respecting the Personhood of Your Children

  • Posted on July 23, 2014 at 10:00 AM

You make love and you make a baby. For nine months, that baby grows in his or her mother’s womb. The baby is born. The mother holds the baby. The father holds the baby. They laugh, they cry, they rejoice together. Their love has made another life. This is their baby.

This is a common enough scene and a common enough sentiment. I know I’m fiercely territorial when it comes to my children. You try to hurt them and you discover that this mama bear’s got claws and teeth. I’ll shred you to bits if I have to in order to protect my children.

There’s a difference between these two sentiments. It’s subtle, but important. It’s one not enough parents seem to make.

A territorial parent will:

  • Protect their children,
  • Nurture their children,
  • Provide for their children, and
  • Make a home for their children.

Some of us go to extreme lengths to achieve these goals. We seek to guide our children and imbue them with the morals and values we believe in. We shape and mold our children, like clay, into the adults we’d like them to become.

A possessive parent will:

  • Protect their interests in their children,
  • Develop their interests within their children,
  • Provide their children with the things they wanted as children, and
  • Make a life for their children.

These parents may go to extreme lengths to make their children into the people they’d like them to be, and that’s often people like themselves. They seek to order their children’s lives and imprint them with the morals and values they believe in. They shape and chisel away at their children, like stone, to shape them into the adults they’d like them to become.

Children are not property. They aren’t possessions. They are human beings. They are individual, little people who grow into individual, big people. They have thoughts, feelings, and dreams that are all their own. Someday they will have the power to leave you. When that day comes the only reasons they have to stay in your life is because: 1) they love you, 2) they respect you, or 3) they’re too afraid to do without you.

Personally, I’d rather be loved, though I hope to be respected as well. I have no desire to be feared—by anyone, least of all my own children.

I’m a territorial parent. I’m active in my children’s lives and I feel a welcome obligation to be present, both for their sakes and for society’s sake. But I am not a possessive parent. As much as I say they’re my children, I do not consider them property. I do not own my children. They are my own, but I do not own them. The difference is subtle, yet important.

I look around and I see possessive parents, parents who are trying desperately hard to make their children into mini versions of themselves or to shape them into who they wanted to be but couldn’t be. You see this in upper class parents who demand their children live up to the family name. You see this in aspirational parents who demand their children be all they can be. You see this in impoverished parents who tell their kids to be realistic if they say they want to be doctors or presidents. You see this in gang families that expect their kids to get into the biz. You see this in sexually-abused single mothers who allow their young daughters to be sexually abused, too. You see this in families who take desperate measures to convince their self-announced gay child to be “straight.” And you see this in families where typically-developing parents take desperate measures to force their atypically-developing child to be “normal.”

History is on their side. It’s only relatively recently that children were recognized as people having rights and those rights aren’t fully developed yet. We still talk about “Tiger Moms” and wonder if it’s a good thing. There’s debate and discussion. It’s not clear to many how these behaviors show that the parent is dictating to the child who the child should be—not what, as in a doctor or a lawyer, but who.

Our children are people. They will grow into adults. What are you doing to make sure that the children around you have a chance to grow into people you want to be around and who will want to be around you?

Independence: Part 3

  • Posted on July 19, 2011 at 2:14 PM

American culture prioritizes self-sufficiency—one form of independence—when assessing human value, and by doing so our culture denies both the belief in equality and the importance of self-determination. I suspect this switch has a lot to do on the American eugenics program, but I’m not going to dwell on that. For now, distinguishing between self-sufficiency and self-determination is enough. Both are aspects of independence, but their place in our society has flipped in significance.

So, where does that leave us? What will independence look like for my family as my children grow up?

In order to try to project that I first have to consider what independence looks like for my family now. Will is the most independent of my three autistic children. At the age of twelve, he can do many things his peers can do. Alex needs a lot of assistance. While he’s becoming more self-sufficient in matters that do not involve communication, he difficulty communicating is still a significant barrier to independence. Ben is, as usual, somewhere in-between. In some ways, he’s very much the “little brother,” and is thus not self-sufficient. But his communication skills have out-paced Alex (he’s no longer considered non-verbal) and his get-into-trouble skills show a great deal of self-sufficient stubbornness, if not a great deal of compliance and understanding. (Why, oh, why must he play with my hand towels!?!)

Looking at the boys, however, is insufficient to properly project their levels of independence in the future. Mark and I are big factors in this. We are both capable of living independently, if it were just ourselves we had to care for. We don’t need personal care workers to meet our personal needs. Yet, I would not consider us self-sufficient. Of course, the money thing is an issue, because we’ve chosen to prioritize our children’s needs over the high-paying, 100-hour-a-week marketing jobs I am otherwise qualified for and because we don’t have the typical dual-income many American families have, we tend to run short on liquid funds when something big happens. More than that, we also need help meeting our children’s needs. We tend to have, between ourselves and among others, inter-dependent relationships.

So, if we wanted our children to live independent—meaning self-sufficient—lives, we’d have to become better examples of self-sufficiency ourselves. On the other hand, both my husband and I are examples of self-determination. I expect Willy will grow up to lead a life that is both acceptably self-sufficient (by society’s standards) and self-determined. Ben may need more assistance than is socially acceptable to be self-sufficient, but he will be self-determined. It’s Alex I worry about. Without an effective means of communication, his self-determination is at risk and so is his self-sufficiency.

It may not be the priority of our culture, but I am personally more concerned with empowering my children to be self-determined.


A Prayer I Can Relate To

  • Posted on November 5, 2009 at 7:16 AM

“Dear Lord, I cannot in a thousand years thank You enough for the sweet chaos of my children.  But I will really, really try.”  Amen!

--Brian Doyle

November 4, 2009

Daily Guideposts 2009