Are we too accepting of the people we love?

by Kristin on November 9, 2009

in Love, family & community,Uncategorized

Last week my ex-husband and I went to parent-teacher conferences for our sixth-grader, Q. By now, after years of hearing teachers describe our child, we pretty much know what to expect: She’s bright as well as kind, helpful, and respectful—the at-school version of herself that we don’t see quite enough evidence of at home.

But at our first middle school conference, we were surprised by a comment made by each of the four teachers we met: Q is self-assured and actively engaged in class. She freely offers answers, ideas and questions. She is emerging as an academic leader.

This surprised us because throughout elementary school, the single “complaint” teachers had of Q was that she wasn’t raising her hand or speaking out. She wasn’t the least bit shy in the lunchroom or on the playground, but she seemed shy and unsure of herself in class, even though teachers knew she had much to add to the discussion and the learning.

As Q’s mom, what I find most interesting about this is how quick we were a few years back to just accept “this is how she is”—socially outgoing but unwilling to be in the spotlight when it comes to performing, in the classroom or on stage. It didn’t occur to me to ask her sixth grade teachers about class participation, because I assumed I already knew the answer. When they offered the information, as one of their favorite things about having Q in class, we were stunned.

Total acceptance that doesn’t lock anyone in

Here’s the tricky parenting balance: We want to demonstrate to our kids that we accept and love them for who they are (and we definitely should do this). I’ve known many people over the years who clearly heard their parents telling them that they should be someone else, even if they never actually *told* them in so many words.

But in the process of saying “I love you just the way you are,” we need to be careful to not let all that affirmation put them in a box. Is it possible that we stifle them in the process of unconditionally loving them?

I was the unaffectionate child

My mom used to tell me stories about my toddler disposition. Rather than being warm, trusting and affectionate, I found most adults I didn’t know well highly suspicious. If they instantly wanted to hug me and lift me into their lap, I balked. My mom responded in the right way, I think; she told people (even my own grandmother visiting from California) to give me some space and let me warm up to them in my own way, when I was ready. Just think—by the very young age of two I had already developed a reputation for being standoffish!

When Q was a baby, I noticed some of the same tendencies in her, and was quick to explain it to myself and others as “just the way we are.” After Q’s very cuddly, affectionate baby sister was born, though, Q began to change. She watched baby sister sitting on laps, snuggling in, and being rocked before bed (things Q had never enjoyed the first two or three years of her life), and she decided “I’m gonna get ME some of that!” And she did. The person I thought she was hard-wired to be changed before my eyes. And years later, the “new” her has stuck.

Meanwhile, what about me? As it turns out, I was internally starving for a type of physical affection that I had always assumed wasn’t my style. I’m sure that misconception played itself out in complicated ways in my first marriage. Now, two years into my new marriage, physical closeness is the super glue.

Be accepting, but don’t carve it in stone

So here’s what I’m thinking: It’s good to be accepting of our kids, spouses and ourselves, and to not try to change everyone. But that acceptance should be penciled in, not written in ink and certainly not carved into stone. When we carve a personality trait into stone, we don’t leave room for new possibilities. It can also be an enabling device—an easy way to make excuses for ourselves or others.

Can you see how you’ve been impacted by someone being too controlling or two accepting? Have you written out too much of your own character in permanent ink? Do you see yourself falling into that pattern with others?

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  • Sarah

    I see what you are saying, and I love the part about it being “penciled-in” instead of written in stone. At the same time, I am wondering if you and your ex didn’t pave the way for Q to become this new, more assertive academic leader because of the fact that you allowed her to be who she was when that DIDN’T seem to be who she was? Does that make sense? Maybe if you’d tried to impose that persona onto her, she would’ve resisted and never grown into it.

    So, maybe it surprises YOU, and makes you recalibrate your assumptions about who she is, but it may be your very unconditionally-loving approach that allowed the transformation.

    I hope I’m making sense…if this sounds in any way critical, then I’m not coming across like I intend. This is supposed to be a big affirmation of your parenting!!!

  • Meredith

    Oddly enough, I think I’m the one who’s been too accepting of my own personality traits. Both of my parents and my older brother have always been very outgoing and extroverted. I was always much quieter and have trouble in large crowds or groups. For awhile, I just sort of accepted that I wasn’t going to be the outgoing one in the family. Once I moved away from home after college (and stopped feeling like I was always so-and-so’s daughter/sister), I had to learn to be more extroverted and I think it sort of paid off. As it happens, my mother (one of the most extroverted people I know) always tells me how painfully shy she was as a child and young adult. And when I stare at her in disbelief, she tells me she had to make herself be more outgoing until she learned how to do it naturally.

    I think sometimes we need that (gentle) push to at least try something different b/c some of us (like me) wouldn’t necessarily try to do things differently unless we had a reason to.

    (Side note: the image of you at the parent-teacher conference made me laugh. My parents always told me they would listen to my teachers praise me and then look at each other and wonder, “are they talking about the same Meredith we know?!?”)

  • Trina

    This question of how much to accept and how much to push is an area of parenting/life I wrestle with all the time. I have mental struggles with how to ‘allow’ with out ‘enabling’. So far most of my instincts have worked – though there’s been a few hurdles. Now, I am wrestling with how much to let go….
    Having a little chuckle over the ‘technical difficulties’ of finding a pic… you do a bang up job creating an image with your words Kristin.

  • Kristin T.

    Sarah, I completely get what you’re saying, and I agree! I’m pretty sure if we had pushed our daughter too hard to participate more in class, it would have had the opposite effect. I’m just glad that in my love and acceptance of her I didn’t do anything to convince her that she’s “just a intellectually reserved person.” It could have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Meredith, this whole experience with my daughter made me not only think of my own childhood, but I also began to wonder how often I resign myself as an adult to certain traits and fates. Just being aware of the possibility helps, I think, and you were able to take it several steps further and “retrain” yourself in specific ways. The fact that your mother is willing to tell you stories about her own patterns of growth makes a big difference, too.

    Trina, yes, it’s a wrestling match, isn’t it? At least if you’re wrestling, it’s a good sign that you understand the need for balance, and that it entails a struggle. As you know, I’m a fan of instincts—they will also come in handy when it comes to letting go, I suspect. :)

  • Laurachris2

    I chuckled about being thought standoffish at age two, and how there were some who probably always thought you were that way. My younger brother threw a tantrum at age two in a store when shopping with our grandmother. She never, ever took him shopping again. When he was a teen he asked her why she took the rest of us and not him; she said, “You won’t behave in a store.” Talk about carved in stone.

  • Carmen

    I love to read about your family!

  • Kristin T.

    Laurachris2, yes, we can get stuck in our ways at an early age, either by choice or because others decide to stick us there! (Your poor brother!)

    Carmen, why thanks! Families are wonderful petri dishes that help us study and understand everything that’s more macro (around us) and even the micro (within us). Btw, I loved hearing more about your childhood and family at your wedding! (Not that I was studying them, of course. :)

  • Jessica

    I have changed so much since my divorce and it makes me laugh when he and others assume I’m the same person I was and treat me accordingly. It makes me so happy to prove them wrong. Great post.

  • Carla

    Being a part of a certain organized religion definitely had me penciled in from birth until my mid 20s – even when I stopped being active in the cult for several years prior. I know what its like to be discouraged to have a sense of self. Being told you cant direct your own step (literally in those words) and to never trust your own judgment.

    Once I broke free, a whole new world opened up for me.

  • Kristin T.

    Jessica, something life-changing like a divorce can really turn who you are around, can’t it? Although I can easily defend myself and my actions/attitudes during my first marriage, I also realize that I’m not a fan of that person I was then. It was a painful process, but I’m so glad I went through it and came out a better person on the other end.

    Carla, it sounds like you have quite a story to tell! I can’t imagine being taught to never trust yourself, and to second-guess your every instinct. I’m so glad a new world has opened up for you.

  • Alisa

    Man! I wish I had time to write more to you about how grateful I am you wrote such insight! But I don’t. :-( So let it suffice to say: Thank you for such deep awareness. I’m glad to know there’s someone else in the world who thinks a lot like me. Keep it up!!

  • Kristin T.

    Alisa, thanks for your kind words—even the short version of what you wanted to say is very nice! I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts and I’ll look forward to getting to know you more.