The other night, we were gathered around one tiny little candle on my life-partner Steve's birthday cake. We are three amigos -- Steve, my daughter Grace and I -- and we do everything as a family. So we blew out the candle together. Then we re-lit it and blew it out again.
I knew exactly what Steve had wished for on his 53rd birthday, and my wish was the same. The universal wish of any parent is that their child grows up to be strong, healthy and happy, and that we are there to see it all. It's a lot to ask but we do so anyway.
I have many other hopes for my daughter. I want her to own her truth, to tell the truth and to never feel as though she owes an explanation for her "no" or "yes." I want her to live with impeccable integrity, unshakable perseverance and unconditional love for those around her. I want her never to seek perfection in love, in others or in herself. I want her to believe in herself and to know that her opinion of herself is all that truly matters.
It's been said that every child is the manifestation of one singular soul, one special being placed on earth to accomplish something remarkable, something that only he or she can do. So why, I wondered, do we devoted parents sometimes project our own desires and goals onto our little ones?
Of course, it's understandable. We all sometimes make big concrete wishes for our kids -- casting out to the heavens the kind of aspirations that say more about us than about our children. Some part of us all would love to see our kids head off to Harvard, heal like Mother Teresa, paint like Picasso, imagine like Einstein and build a corporate phenomenon like Bill Gates.
But if I ever catch myself entertaining these thoughts, I stop myself and ask: Are these my daughter's grand yearnings or mine?
Learning to let my child find her own path has been a big part of my evolution as a parent. Before I became a mother at the age of 40, I was a CEO running a company of 400 employees. My enterprise operated at its most effective level when I was able to impose my vision on those around me, to steer the ship, to make things happen.
But since I've become a mother, I have chosen to step down from that boss role (both literally and figuratively). Being the spiritual guardian of a little soul means that I must now allow her to blossom into who she wants to be -- not who I wish for her to be.
Which, as we all know, is sometimes easier said than done. We all want the best for our children, but sometimes our ideal is not the most positive path for our little ones.
How can we let our kids know of all the glorious wishes we have for them without making them feel beholden to our dreams? How can we guide - not force - our children towards their true journey in life? For some answers, I turned to a few of my friends and searched my own heart, too.
Consider Where Your Wish Is Coming From:
"Sometimes parents have unfilled wishes in their own lives and project onto their children, says Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, the author of Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. "They never went to an Ivy League school or became a doctor, so their child must. Or they never played professional tennis, so their child will." So how do you make sure you're supporting your son or daughter's desires? "Do some deep thinking and try to understand where your wish is coming from. If you are trying to fill a void from your own life, you can start by acknowledging that and give your child some room to find his own dream," says Dr. Siegel
Be in Touch With Who Your Children Really Are:
When you're with your kid, open your eyes to what he or she really loves to do. Is it observing bees as they build a hive? Is it creating dance steps for their younger siblings? Is it constructing skyscrapers with their Legos? "Be present with your child, and create experiences that are open and flexible," says Dr. Siegel, who says he tries to parent in COAL state, calling on Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance and Love. Let go of judgments and focus on developing a respectful relationship with your little one. Your child should not be a soldier falling in line behind you, but a companion on your shared life journey. "That to me," says Dr. Siegel, "Is what parenting is truly about."
My friend Alison started piano lessons at the same time as her daughter; she was 5 and she was 42. The little girl even accompanied her mother to every one of her lessons and watched her plunk and plink her way through Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. But rather than cringe at his mother's mistakes, the little girl admired her effort. "It was great for her to see me struggle," my friend tells me. "She saw that I was willing to work towards mastering something new - even at my age. That made her realize that hard work is worth it, especially if at the end of a year's worth of lessons you can play Fur Elise!"
Let Them Catch Your Enthusiasm:
Share experiences and hobbies you'd like them to explore and show them how much you love these pastimes. "Kids can 'catch you enthusiasm," says Gretchen Rubin, the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project. Rubin loves Harry Potter, so she stands in midnight lines at Barnes & Noble to get a-hot-off-the-presses copy, and braves the crowd at opening night for the movies. "My kids see how much I love Harry Potter and now they love him, too." The same can be true of family pastimes such as sailing, tennis, gardening and even opera.
Support What They Love
So-called "time wasters" such as doodling or bug collecting might seem perplexing hobbies now, but those interests could very well point the direction to your child's future. "I know one friend who spent all his time as a child tape recording noises," says Rubin. "Today, he's a sound artist." The author adds that her sister now wishes she had spent more time watching television as a child -- a habit her parents discouraged. Today, she is a successful TV writer.
"From my experience, people are happiest when they do what they like," she says. "If you push them in a different direction, they get confused." Instead, she counsels, don't push, observe. "Getting in their way -- that's not so successful in the end," she says. "Children get directed away from what they more likely will succeed at. People do best what they want to do naturally.
With all this good wisdom in mind, I now make sure that Grace's wishes are my wishes. When she told me she wanted to be a doctor I played her patient. When she wanted to rescue animals I was her assistant and together we took care of many stuffed bears and cats. When she told me she wanted to be a singer I listened to her nightly concerts.
When your child's wishes become your wishes you are teaching them confidence in their choices, and building a trust and respect that will carry you along life's journey together.
Cristina Carlino is a mother, poet and the founder and creator of philosophy, one of the most beloved brands in the cosmetic industry. Her new book, The Changing Room: A Mother's Journal of Gratitude to Her Little Girl, is available at amazon.com . 100% of proceeds go to Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation, which supports survivors of rape, incest and abuse. Please join Cristina's fan page at www.facebook.com/cristinacarlino