My son Jonathan turned five on Saturday, January 12th. I still can’t believe that the baby boy that was five months old when I started working at Hamlin is now five years old. Watching our children grow up is a great blessing, and raising them to be happy and confident children is a great responsibility. I love the wisdom and practical advice found in parenting books, and I am currently reading author Andrew Solomon’s extraordinary new book called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. As I was reading, I was struck by the following line: “Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.” Let me take you back to Saturday, January 12th for a moment.
A couple hours before Jonathan’s birthday lunch, he attended the birthday party of a dear friend. A children’s theater company in Fort Mason hosted the party, and the parents were asked to drop the children off and return in 90 minutes for pick-up. In 90 minutes’ time, a production would be rehearsed, staged, and ready to perform for a small audience. My husband Robert and I were eager and ready with our video camera to capture the special moment of seeing our son Jonathan on stage. At home, Jonathan is a dancer, an athlete, and a comedian; surely, he would find joy and comfort on the stage. I arrived at the party at the designated time, only to discover that Jonathan had refused to participate in the show. He was nervous and shy and did not want to act. He did, however, agree to be the “stage manager,” and he proudly worked the lights during the brief and charming production of “The Lion King.”
This experience is not new to me as a mom; my older son David has also refused to participate in any show of any kind—in preschool, David was in charge of music and sound effects for the class play. He was the only child in the class who was not “in” the class play, and his teachers supported his decision. Thus, when David learned that his little brother Jonathan was the stage manager for the play, he looked at me with glee and exclaimed, “Mom, aren’t you proud to be the mother of two stage managers?”
For my two sons, “audience participation” is an oxymoron. They prefer being in the audience. They do not wish to participate in the show. I am stunned (and sometimes a bit saddened, as Andrew Solomon observes) by how different my children are from me and my husband, and I am learning to accept my children’s differences without the slightest show of frustration or disappointment. I want to see them on stage as animated performers and passionate public speakers, but that is my dream, not their reality.
Andrew Solomon talks about two kinds of identity: vertical and horizontal. Vertical identity encompasses all of the attributes, values, and traits that are transmitted from one generation to the next. Race and culture, language, and sometimes religion are examples of vertical identity. Parents are overjoyed when they see traits and behaviors both in themselves and in their children. We are comforted by the familiar, and we are certain that we are part of the same lineage when we consider our vertical identity. Horizontal identity—traits, values, and preferences in children that are not similar to their parents’— “catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,” Solomon asserts. Horizontal identity is affirmed not by parents, but through close association with a peer group. Thus, our children are familiar to us in many ways (vertical) and can be foreign to us in others (horizontal).
Far From The Tree is beautifully written and explores far more significant aspects of horizontal identity than my “stage mom” anecdote: Solomon interviews hundreds of parents whose children are deaf, dwarfs, transgender, autistic, prodigies, or born under traumatic circumstances. In a very real way, these parents live in a different world from their children, and their children must find “their tribe” in order to affirm who they are and to support their healthy transition into adulthood. When the proverbial apple falls far from the tree, parenting may be harder yet often more rewarding.
Are you an accomplished athlete parenting a daughter who is physically uncoordinated? Are you a former spelling bee champion parenting a child with dyslexia? Are you a choral singer whose child can’t carry a tune? Are you a straight parent with a gay child? Are you a superbly organized and focused adult who is parenting a child with ADHD? Are you a passionate and confident public speaker whose two children want to be the stage manager? Ultimately, it is our job and our joy as parents to accept our children for who they are, viewing their differences as distinct features and not character flaws. We must strike the necessary and delicate balance between allowing them to be exactly who they are and encouraging them to be more than they could ever imagine.