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Parent Coach: Learning To Love The Differences Between You And Your Child

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Dear Susan,

We are an older couple with only one child, after trying for many years to have a family. I love my daughter very much, but we are extremely different. I am the kind of person who loves the arts and music, and I have taken her to many different classes and lessons but she has no interest. What can I do? I enjoyed drawing and playing piano so much as a child, but she isn't interested, and we fight about it all the time now.

Signed,
Interest Impasse

Dear Interest Impasse,

From time to time, I visit friends at their 20-acre property on the big island of Hawaii. Gwen and Micah have five dogs -- Blue, Bree, Lila, Ole, and Zorro -- each with a well-defined personality and temperament. Blue’s the sniffer, making sense of his world by smelling everything he encounters. Bree’s the watchdog, sounding the alarm and getting the other dogs stirred up when someone arrives. Ole’s the licker -- he needs to taste you to see if you’re worthy of his friendship. Lila is very protective, always scolding Bree, Blue, and Ole and bossing them around. And Zorro -- a rescue dog -- is still very cautious. You can’t make any moves in his direction; you have to wait patiently for him to come to you. But he roams the land with a smile from ear to ear, spreading joy in his wake.

We accept the different ways the dogs manifest their individual natures, and find them endlessly entertaining. Instead of trying to mold them to be different from what they are, we revel in their distinctive personalities. Gwen knows that she needs to approach Zorro slowly. Micah knows he needs to give Blue time to smell him all over every morning. The dogs are given the freedom to be who they are.

What if we approached our children this way? What if we accepted who they are without tying ourselves -- and them -- into knots, trying to force our music lover to become a driven athlete, or our introspective child into being the extroverted star of the school play?

In theory, we usually do our best to deal with our children's particular quirks and tendencies. But it's one thing to tolerate a characteristic, and another to fully accept it. I'm not saying it's easy for the former star football-playing dad to raise a son who has zero interest in sports, or for the nature-lover to end up with a child who has an aversion to the outdoors. Nor am I saying that we shouldn't expose our kids to activities and experiences that are outside their comfort zone. Many times, a more sedentary youngster needs to be pushed to try a sport, or a shy child needs extra encouragement to try out for the school play.

But in my counseling work, I see far too many kids who move through life feeling that they are a disappointment because they don't line up with their parents' expectations, fostering all kinds of behavioral and emotional challenges, from substance abuse to depression.

One of the key elements for launching children towards a happy and successful life is making sure they know that they're cherished for who they are, as is, right now, regardless of their grades, achievements or behavior. When a child feels he doesn't measure up, he moves into adulthood burdened by an insatiable longing for approval and appreciation that is characteristic of so many of us who feel we just aren't quite enough.

I know sometimes it isn't easy to come to terms with the child we got rather than the one we were hoping for. But we owe it to ourselves and to our kids to grieve the loss of those qualities in our children that we wish were different -- to really feel our sadness and disappointment -- and to then to make peace with the child we have. This doesn't mean we won't continue to try to broaden their horizons or expand their repertoire of interests. It's fine to introduce your daughter to art and music lessons for a while. But don't force your agenda onto her.

Look for your daughter's passions, and help her explore them. Take her to the magazine section of a bookstore and let her choose publications that are of interest to her -- whether they're about horses, fashion, cooking or something she hasn't yet discovered. Support her in developing the confidence to share her unique gifts, feeling the happiness that comes from being who she is meant to be.

It's not always easy to let go of the child we imagined we would have in favor of the one in front of us, but the payoff is enormous. Your daughter may eventually find she does have an interest in the arts if you back off. Meanwhile, help her explore her talents with your love and support.

Yours in parenting support,
Susan

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.