Studies show that when we give a child a complicated toy without instructions rather than tell them how to use it, the child will find all sorts of possibilities in that toy rather than play with it in some predetermined way. If we provide our children and teens with a garden and allow growth to occur rather than a set of carpenter’s plans that tell them how to build, possibility blossoms.
In this week’s column I invite you to shift your focus from the worry about your kids to their potential. Which wolf will you feed? Feed them with creativity and possibility rather than fear, worry and anxiety. Rather than orchestrating every outcome, see her as an individual with the universe inside her.
As Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sing:
“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Read on to discover the garden.
Oh the possibility!
JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
Children are born with a universe of possibilities inside them. These little beings come into the world with their own temperaments and personalities that will develop based on their own innate characteristics and their relationship to the world around them. Different circumstances, environments and how the world responds to them will influence who they become. Some are born into more fortunate circumstances than others, yet it is all a host of possibilities that is inside.
We see the possibility as we look into a newborn’s eyes; as we marvel at the wonder our toddlers see; as we are filled with joy when we spend meaningful time with our children or teens.
And then the stressors of life come rolling in. We have to work, pay the bills, maintain a family. Through all this, there are times we feel challenged by our kids and it feels hard. Our toddlers aren’t able to do what we ask and we have to be at work on time. Our tween gives us sass because she is trying to become her own independent person and doesn’t know how to do it with grace. Our teen pushes a safety boundary because he is wired toward taking risks. We want things to happen like they do in our adult world and we are living with kids who haven’t gotten there yet.
In addition to all this, fears can come creeping in. Who will my child be? Will they be OK? Am I giving them what they need? These fears influence how we respond. We feel confused or hurt, get angry, and find ourselves fighting with our kids.
And sometimes we forget that what they are – what we all are – is a host of possibilities.
I have to admit that I have fallen into the carpenter mode of being a parent – and talking about being a parent for that matter. In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, professor Alison Gopnik talks about a parent as a “carpenter” who thinks their child can be molded: "The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you're going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult." It’s as if we could, like a carpenter, create a set of plans, put all the pieces together in the right places and shape our children into adults who end up with a desirable set of character traits.
While we may think it’s our job to steer our children and teens, more it might be to provide opportunities and bear witness to what unfolds. With this in mind, Gopnik also talks about a parent as a “gardener” who provides a safe and nurturing environment. Rather than worrying about and trying to control who the child will become, we let them explore and investigate, fall down and get back up and discover what works for them and who they want to be. Rather than worry about who they will be, we revel in who they are right now.
“You can’t tell people what to be, I’m afraid. ... You can only love and support who they already are,” says a character in Laurie Frankel’s novel “This Is How It Always Is.” Sometimes I feel I need this pasted on my bathroom mirror.
I don’t know about you, but I can have a lot of concern about my kids. While it’s not that I directly tell them what to be, it may be that my sometimes subtle messages and tone of voice that conveys approval or disapproval may be telling them who they are and what they are doing is not OK or doesn’t meet my ideals. I attempt to mold and shape and criticize and direct all in the name of protecting them and helping them get to the place where they will turn out OK. Yet it doesn’t allow them to be who they are and discover their own path. And, as another of Frankel’s characters says, it can sound as if I am saying, “Act this way, behave this way, deny yourself, or you’ll lose my love.” Or end up unhappy — or whatever it is for you.
For example, rather than worrying about your kids tuning out on digital devices, can you go back to seeing them for who they really are: sparks of light and joy and fun and potential? The idea is this: Dive in with your kids about why they feel like they need that outlet for hours of the day. Investigate with them what makes it so compelling. Ask them when they feel the most happy, and when they feel the least. Explore with them other options. Provide the garden.
Can we think of it as our job to teach our kids skills that prepare them for the outside world instead of shaping who they are? We can embody our values and let our children soak them up and mix them around and come out the other side with their own.
Yes, it's OK to set limits, ask for kind behavior and teach your kids to contribute in the house. But, as Gopnik says, “what ends up happening is parents are so preoccupied with this hopeless task of shaping their children to come out a particular way that their relationships with children at the moment become clouded over with guilt and anxiety and worry.”
I invite you to take a step back. Take a deep breath. Trust that all is well, and all will be OK. Yes, there will be bumps in the road and hard times and you may want to throw your hands up in exasperation or slump onto the floor and cry. And then go back to trust. Believe in the possibility. Believe that your children will turn out to be who they are. Provide the space. The protection. The humility. The kindness. The understanding. The forgiveness. The teaching. The love. The possibility.
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!