I think the hardest lesson for me in becoming a parent was learning to let go of my expectations for my sons. Okay, I’ll be completely honest; I’ve only been able to partially let go of them. I think it’s impossible not to have some wishes for our kids, but the focus here is really on how we have specific things we hope they’ll like or do that often mirror our own interests or fantasies.
When I was a member of the Big Brother organization it had the unexpected effect of turning out to be a parenting prep course. The “Little” (the term for the kid you are matched with) I had was a young eight-year-old girl who totally didn’t like doing anything physical. This was before I was married, let alone before I became a parent.
In those days, they matched girls with Big Brothers, something that is all too rare today, due to fears enhanced by the media and the exaggeration of sexual harassment. Another topic for another column, for sure, as the little girls without fathers need the “Bigs” just as much as the little boys do, so this is a terrible loss for them.
My image of parenting or being a Big Brother, at that time, was going to the park with my kid and playing ball. The memories of playing catch with my late father are among the few strong memories of my youth. He was a workaholic, by necessity, and I saw way too little of him, although I knew that he loved and cared for me. So, the occasions when we’d do things together stood out as special and I expected and I hoped to do the same with my “little” as well as my future children.
Because she was uninterested in anything physical, I had to be creative in finding outings for us to do, and find things we’d enjoy doing together. As luck would have it, when I did become a parent, neither of my sons was athletic or interested in doing much physical activity either.
At first, this was a disappointment until I reflected on my relationship with my “Little” and realized, as demoralizing as it may have been, that my kids aren’t me. What a shock! They might have interests and desires of their own. Even as young kids they exhibited strong desires that were often at odds with my hopes and expectations for them. The vanity that we, as parents, often feel about our kids is really expressed in these sorts of interests. When your child does do the sports you do, listens to the music you like, and enjoys the foods, movies, and restaurants you do, let’s face the fact that it feeds your ego and is gratifying.
But, that isn’t what parenting is about. It’s about allowing your children to discover their own passions rather than mimicking yours. If you’re fortunate enough to have children that enjoy things you do, then count yourself among the lucky few. But, your job as a parent is not to make a clone of yourself.
I think where it matters, about shared interests, is with our choice of a spouse. I made the mistake of allowing my panic over not being married in my late thirties and my fervent desire to have children, to overlook the obvious differences between my first wife and me. I rationalized our different backgrounds and different interests away, in the name of love. It didn’t work.
There’s a wonderful French movie from the 1970s, which I think tells the simplest and most basic lesson about choosing a spouse. It’s called “And Now My Love,” and was directed by the great Claude LeLouch. Given the tenor of those times and the confidence, one could say conceit of French cinema; only a French director would have taken on the concept of this movie—love at first sight. The entire movie is a tease in which our two protagonists, who we come to learn are made for each other, keep on just missing meeting each other.
The scene that relates most to my assertion that shared interests are needed takes place early in the film, when the male protagonist is taken to prison. He is led to a cell where there’s another prisoner who is making coffee. An older man, he looks up and asks his new cellmate if he’d like to have some coffee and when the answer is “yes,” he asks how many lumps of sugar he takes (back in the days when there were “lumps of sugar”) to which the answer is “three.” The older man looks up, surprised at that high number, and casually replies, “When you meet a woman who also takes three lumps of sugar, marry her.” The young man is startled and asks why, to which the older man again, calmly replies, “because at least you’ll have one thing in common.”
The rest of the movie, which I won’t ruin for you, has him checking with the various women he meets whether they take three lumps of sugar or not. The lesson is simple: having a base of commonality is a key ingredient to the success of a (romantic) relationship.
But that has nothing to do with your kids. They aren’t you and other than sharing the same DNA, they are totally unique individuals. So, if they stray away from the paths you want for them, let it go and support their passions. It’s the passions that dictate our eventual success and life satisfaction. As for choosing a mate, think about the three lumps of sugar.