When parents welcome a baby into their lives, it can take them a long, long time to recognize that they haven’t just welcomed a cute little bundle of needs and smiles into their lives; they have allowed a whole other person to be a part of their daily lives.
It is so easy to take the approach of first welcoming a baby, and then welcoming a toddler, and then a 4-5 year old, and so on through welcoming a teenager into the set life that we have established as a couple, acting the part of the reigning adult throughout every stage of our chid’s development, learning the challenges that come with each, ready for them with masterful counterattacks, ensuring above all that we, the parents, are the authority figures to be respected and obeyed: stronger, smarter, wiser, and possessing way more life experiences. Children must learn their place, must be controlled, must “behave like a picture” – the epitome of a well-behaved child, according to the French saying.
No, really, I remember being that kid who took pride in being as quiet and still as a picture. It was like the quiet game, only it wasn’t really a game.
With this approach to parenting, when we’re interacting with other grown ups it doesn’t take long for things that aren’t heard to fade into the background and no longer be seen either. Like a pretty picture, children are expected to brighten up the place, but quickly fade into the background, neither heard nor even noticed at all.
But children aren’t pictures that we frame and proudly display on our wall. Is it even right for us to expect them to be pause their existence so that “grown ups can talk?”
Children also don’t need to learn their place. They instinctually know their place. They know that grown ups are to be respected, because they’re grown ups! Duh! Grown ups already have children’s respect, and their trust. Do they deserve it? Not always. Perhaps a better question would be: can they keep it?
Instead of viewing children as an intrusion on parents’ otherwise fairytale relationship, could they be welcomed as an addition to the community that was established between the parents? Communities change over time. They grow. They adapt. They change. Or they don’t and they fall apart.
Welcome that new person into your community. Welcome them as a very young whole person. A person with their own thoughts, ideas, feelings, and desires. A young person with needs too, yes, which require the help of a grown up, but a whole person all the same. And the sooner you do so, the sooner you will give them the room they need to be themselves completely. Don’t carve out a baby-sized space in your heart for them. They will outgrow that in a minute and you’ll experience the pain of making them a little more room, inch by painful inch. Go all in! Give them the space of a whole other complete person, with room to grow.
Then, respect their life stages as they grow. When they are two and need to do everything on their own at the top of their lungs, let them. Offer help if they want it, but let them try. Let them try everything. They love to try every little thing themselves. And they can do so much! If you let them. They’ll even learn to ask for help when they need it. And you’ll learn patience. You’ll learn slowing down. You’ll learn that a two yr old putting their own shoes on is more important than getting there on time.
And when they’re 5 and they know everything, give them the freedom not to conform, while sticking to your decisions as parents. They’ll learn that you respect them even when they don’t agree with you. They’ll still love you even after they’ve yelled at you and called you names. Be consistent. Be loving. Give them room to try out their emotions on you. You can take it, while lovingly telling them that it hurts you when they treat you that way.
Before you know it, they’re 10 and they are nothing but emotion, but you can handle that too. You’ve given them plenty of room to grow, a safe space in which to blow up, a trusted person they can turn to when they feel lost or overwhelmed.
And when they’re a teenager and you’ve embraced the whole person that they have been for the last 12, 15, 17 years, they’ll know that there is nothing they can say, feel, or do that will change your commitment to them, that will change your love for them. They won’t know about the love vice that you could have been squeezing them with all this time, the love vice called “CONTROL” – all they will know is the freedom to be themselves in a home where there was room for their whole being, including their wings, where their parents were the ones whispering to them “fly, spread your wings and fly!” the whole time.
When you welcome a baby into your life, embrace them as an equal, full rights, no reserve – immature, with specific needs at first, yes, but a whole member of your community, and watch as they quickly grow into that full place and occupy it completely when they are ready, without need to control or treat them as inferior human beings.
As for those times when you have other grown-ups over for your own sanity’s sake, let the kids crash your party. They will quickly decide for themselves that their Legos are way more interesting. But they will also learn that they are welcome to join in on more mature conversations as soon as they are ready. And what better place to learn that skill than at the family table, or in your living room?
Jessica and I have learned so much from our children. They challenge us with simple but difficult questions, they offer their thoughts and wisdom that isn’t yet cluttered with dogma or baggage, and often get straight to the center of things.
Don’t wait to have a meaningful and deep relationship with your children until later, when they become whole people. You’ll miss out if you do, because they are whole people now.