There is a post on Facebook going around with a drawing that says, “Refuse to be your child’s first bully.” It is a picture of a mom and dad standing behind a boy with wings. The father is about to cut the wings while the mother watches.
Adults spend decades undoing the damage done to them in the first eighteen years of life. They spend their twenties trying to figure out who they are and what makes them happy. Their thirties are spent refining the definition of self and trying to live authentically. And the forties are spent trying to be authentic.
This undoing, this retraining, only occurs when the adult is lucky enough to figure out what has happened to them. Too many others stumble through life, feeling broken and empty with no clue as to why.
Here is the truth. As a child, you already knew who you were and what made you happy. You did. You were already authentic, already vulnerable, brave, and living creatively.
Over the years, those parts of you were whittled away. Small strips at a time, you were changed until suddenly, you were different, without any knowledge as to how you got that way.
If you ask me, one of the more apparent beginnings of whittling starts when adults ask children what they want to be when they grow up. First, it promotes the myth that there is an “up” and end destination. When, in fact, the majority of adults change careers many times or spend years at a job just to pay the bills. Second, if the adult counters the answer with anything other than, “That’s amazing. I want to help you get there,” it could be damaging to the child.
For me, this occurred when I would say I wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, writer, and singer. Growing up, I loved to write, help people, sing, dance in the warm summer rain, and research anything and everything that piqued my curiosity. I literally read the encyclopedia for fun. I had a four-season plan for my careers. I was to write during the winter because I hate cold weather and preferred to hibernate anyway. I planned to practice law in the summer because that’s a popular season for lawsuits. I would release albums in the fall, and I would do surgeries in the spring because for some reason, I felt like spring was a big time for injuries. I had a plan.
My mother would smile and say, “That’s a lot of work. It’s good you have a plan.” Other adults would tell me it was impossible. Some said I should pick one. A few were bold enough to tell me all my choices were too impractical and suggested I choose something else entirely. “What about a good federal job?” As I grew, more people would suggest modeling, stating I was pretty, skinny, and tall. A few outrageous folks suggested basketball, ignoring the fact that I didn’t have a sporty bone in my body.
Here’s the thing. Adults are continually trying to preemptively prepare children for the world. It is as if everyone forgets that children live in the world. They are not locked in bubbles or towers until they are released at age eighteen. Child society is a shrunken version of adult society, with politics and social norms, and bullies, and bleeding hearts. They have it all. They are already living with the same limitations of society without the benefit of being able to walk away. So instead of being an encouraging safe haven where all things are still possible, and curiosity is cultivated, adults tell children to be practical, be logical, be on guard, be less themselves, so they fit in more, or be better than everyone else, so they will have a head start. Out of a sincere attempt at shielding them from harm, adults try to mold children into impervious, super versions of themselves–smarter, tougher, wiser, wealthier versions.
The consequence of this molding, this whittling of little ones, is the consummate adulthood struggle of trying to figure out who you are and what makes you happy. Children are not more prepared for the world because of our meddling. They are not evolved versions of their parents. They do not manage to avoid bullies. They do not find their passions faster. They aren’t perfect at relationships. And most of them do not fare much better than their parents. Instead, they spend adulthood trying to sniff out and plug the holes in their lives while simultaneously trying to mend the tears in their psyche.
I think the greatest fallacy of parenthood–adulthood–is that you must shield children from ALL harm. All of it, present and future. Adults try to deprogram the “mistakes” out of children to no avail.
Dori said it best in Finding Nemo when Marlin said he promised Nemo that he wouldn’t let anything happen to him. “Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise… Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.”
So maybe we should just stop. We need to stop trying to mold the imperfections out of children. Some of the greatest human beings on Earth were probably terrors to raise. Can you imagine trying to discipline Barack Obama or Martin Luther King Jr.? They had rational arguments for everything! The people who are the GOATs of their field were either given the space and nurturing to be themselves as children, or they struggled and worked hard to find themselves later in life. Sadly, the latter is true for too many people.
I propose that every adult takes a vow to do two things. 1) Nurture the children in your life as they are. Teach them values, self-respect, responsibility, and confidence, but do not attempt to temper their imperfections. Besides, all children are strange. 2) Nurture your own inner child. Heal your inner child and give yourself the space to be exactly who you are without the burden of an end goal. Publish to fulfill a dream, not grow your bank account. Paint because it soothes you. Play soccer because it makes you feel free. Sing like no one is listening. Take law classes because it interests you, or a math class because to you, math is beautiful.
Do these things because you want to. The beauty of adulthood is that you can, and no one can tell you no. Take the vow. Nurture children and nurture yourself.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon