Parenting news bulletin: Our children are not here to meet our emotional needs and fulfill our dreams. We’re here to support theirs. (**see note at the end of the post)

This is a sharp left from the parenting path our world has been on for thousands of years, which has said: “Children are here for the benefit of the parents. They need to help raise younger siblings and work for the family business as soon as they’re capable. They’re to be seen but not heard, which literally means they can be present for a conversation but not contribute, and symbolically means that children shouldn’t have a real childhood or their own voice.”

But just as the marriage contract is continually evolving to reflect an equal pairing between two people, so the parenting contract is evolving as well.

We now recognize the immense value of childhood in terms of growing a strong sense of self. We honor play and emotional intelligence, encouraging children to express the full range of their emotional experience. We strive to protect a child’s innocence (increasingly challenging in today’s fast-paced, media-drenched world) as we understand that the preservation of childhood creates a more solid foundation onto which adulthood can be grown.

And we understand – or at least we’re moving in this direction – that one of the most important tasks of parenting in terms of nurturing your child’s self-trust is to look for their spark of interests and intrinsic gifts so that you can help fan that spark into a consistent flame of, again, a strong sense of self.

This isn’t always easy.

I remember when our son first told me that he wanted to be an astronaut. We were in Vancouver and he and I had walked down to the beach in the evening to spend time together. As we were looking up at the night sky he said, “I really want to go to the moon one day.” It hit me square between the eyes in that moment. I looked at him and said, “You want to be an astronaut?” “Yes,” he said quietly.

It seemed like just a blink of an eye ago that I had adjusted to the fact that he wanted to be a pilot. We supported his glider lessons and walked through a gauntlet of terror before he soloed on his 14th birthday. We celebrated when he earned two scholarships: one to complete his glider training and attain his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday and the second to receive his powered plane training (on hold because of covid).

It took me some time, but I had surrendered to his path as a commercial airline pilot. Yet I should have known that he wouldn’t stop dreaming there. I should have known that for the boy who longs to go higher and faster that he would want to go as high and fast as he possibly could. And that means following his dream to become an astronaut. And if it’s his dream, then it’s my task to support it.

Do I relish the idea of him traveling into space? Of course not. It terrifies me to my core. Do I like the idea that he might be 35,000,000 miles away from us? No, not in the slightest. (In fact, just writing down that number brings a lump of fear to my throat and tears of grief to my eyes.) It’s hard enough imagining him at college across the country. But to imagine him on the moon or Mars? Heart-wrenching. Nothing short of agonizing.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about him. So I spend some of my free time researching the paths they will help him fulfill his dream. I log onto college websites. I read articles about astronauts. I listen closely as he shares what he’s learned from the latest astronaut autobiography he’s read: what path did they take; where did they go to school; what clues can we glean about what it takes to become an astronaut?

Again, we’re in the midst of true shift in the parenting paradigm. For most of human history, children did exist to fulfill their parents’ needs: to farm the land, to help raise the kids, to add value or prestige to the family legacy by marrying “well”. Then they existed to her raised, which means caring for their physical being but not much beyond that.
But things are changing. As Elizabeth Lesser wrote in Marrow about her parents’ mindset around raising kids,

“In their day, self-refection was a waste of time and psychotherapy was for crazy people. And parenting? It was not yet a verb. People had children, fed and clothed them, sent them to school, made them do chores, and pretty much that was it.”

Right! Parenting is now a verb, and now we see it as our task to nurture and support our kids to become the fullest expression of themselves.

Or as Kahlil Gibran famously wrote in The Prophet:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

People often ask me, “How? How do you let him fly? How can you encourage him to become an astronaut?”

My response is, “How could I not? Flying is what gives his life meaning. Having a clear purpose is a gift beyond words. So many people struggle these days to find meaningful work and to even know what work they believe could be meaningful. I would rather he follow his dream that connects to purpose than try to squash it in any way and watch a slow decay of soul.”

That’s my quick answer. My deeper answer is that in order to support his dreams I have to be willing to face one of the most painful aspects of parenting: that our children are only under our roof for a very short time – the blink of an eye, really – and in order to accept this truth, I must be willing to grieve and let go. Grieve and let go. Grieve and let go. Isn’t that the essence of what I teach every day in my work? We have to grieve our fantasies of what we think life and love and parenting should be like so that we can accept what is.

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Everest’s soul dwells in the house of tomorrow. He’s part of the Mars Generation, which is the term assigned to the hundreds of teens around the world who share Everest’s dream of being on the first mission to Mars. To be honest, leaving home for any length of time to any destination gives me travel anxiety, so the idea of going on a three-year mission to Mars is utterly inconceivable. But this is the point: it’s his dream, not mine. And it’s so far from my dream and even my realm of understanding that I cannot visit, not even in my dreams. And this shatters my heart.

But my love for him is stronger than my shattered heart. My love for him gathers up the shards of my heart and knits them back together again daily. When his face shines while talking about flying, when he shows me the latest photos from the probe that recently landed on Mars, when he studies into the night because he wants to make sure he’s on target for his dream of NASA, my heart surges and leaps just as it did on the day he was born. Parenting is a daily awareness of grief and gratitude, a plan that includes at its core an untethering of the instinct that says, “Keep our children close.” On the day Everest was born, my midwife said to me just before she cut the umbilical cord, “You’ll never be closer than you are right now.” How right she was.

Some journaling questions to consider:

  1. Did your parent support your interests, intrinsic gifts, and passions?
  2. If not, how might you life look/feel different if they had?
  3. If you’re a parent now, do you struggle at all with noticing and supporting your kids’ gifts and interests?
  4. As Linda wisely asks below: What would your life path have looked like had your parents encouraged you to make decisions based on self-trust in your teens and early twenties? (slightly different from question #2 above)

 

** Supporting our kids’ interests and dreams does NOT mean that we sacrifice our entire sense of self in order to do so. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s possible and essential to tend to our own needs as parents while supporting our kids. The main message of this post is that it’s not our kids’ job to live out our unlived lives and fill our emotional needs. That’s our job. **

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