I had an experience with a family a couple of weeks ago that is still circling around in my mind and it keeps bringing me back to one of my all-time favorite poems, which is by an anonymous poet, that I originally read in The Road Less Traveled by Dr. M. Scott Peck. ?The poem is called “Love is Separateness” and it has been a lesson to me as a parent for many years. ?It goes like this:
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 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 bow 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 arrow 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.
This is powerful stuff. ?For many parents, though, the idea that their children are not an extension of themselves which they own and must control is a difficult concept to master.
The role of a parent is to empower and guide one’s children to autonomous success, not manipulate them like a puppeteer. ?The flip side of that is that the outcomes of the choices our children make, particularly as they grow older and are able to assume greater responsibility, are their outcomes to bear, not ours.
Taking into account any kind of impairment that might otherwise impact a child’s judgment, parents need to let go as their children become more capable, knowing that they are going to make mistakes and hopefully learn from them.
But, when parents perceive that their own self-worth is measured in terms of what their children do, and their children are making bad choices or are otherwise being unsuccessful in their lives, these parents can start making bad decisions of their own that serve to reinforce their children’s inappropriate behavior or otherwise foster a co-dependent relationship with their children.
All the special education in the world isn’t going to undo that kind of damage. That’s the kind of thing that truly warrants family therapy outside of the special education process.
Understanding where the line is drawn between empowering and enabling a child is difficult. ?When emotions get in the way of logical thought and careful examination of the facts, parents can find it even more difficult to let their children learn from their mistakes. ?When children have disabilities, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between real and learned helplessness as well as inability versus unwillingness.
Some parents go to the extreme of insisting that “can’t” always means “won’t” and throw their children to the wolves to fend for themselves thinking it will somehow make them tougher and smarter, while others go to the opposite extreme of presuming that their children can’t do anything for themselves at all and deprive them of the skill and knowledge they need to take care of themselves.
The truth for every child lies somewhere between those two extremes, but it differs from child to child. ?Just as an IEP calls for an individualized education, raising children requires knowing them for who they are as unique individuals and fostering their growth so that they can travel their own unique paths in life as successfully as they possibly can.