Parenting is never knowing what you'll get

Kim Himstreet

Ever feel like your child’s actions are an exact reflection of how you behaved in your youth? Or conversely, there’s a changeling living with you who was left by fairies or accidentally switched with some other baby at the hospital.

What gives? How can the children who share your DNA and are raised by you, be so like you in some ways, and so surprisingly different in others? This question of nature versus nurture is an issue that has vexed parents for millennia and plays out in many aspects of children’s personalities, behavior and development. But one common conundrum is the way our offspring’s interests and talents may converge or diverge from our own.

It’s understandable that kids would be interested in the careers, hobbies and sporting interests their parents pursue or talk about. They see mom skiing or dad shooting hoops with his friends on weekends and watching basketball games on TV, and they become interested in those sports too. Or they see a parent who loves to sketch and paint watercolors, or rebuild old cars, or play piano, and they are lured in by our enthusiasm and acquire a passion for those pastimes.

Often, the student very quickly becomes the master, surpassing the abilities of his or her parents. Is that due to some inherited genetic predisposition or simply a result of their own drive and effort (along with the parental support and encouragement they receive)? In reality, it’s probably some combination of the two, regardless of how much we’d like to think they’re just a chip off the old block.

Somewhat more puzzling for many parents, are the kids whose talents or interests seem to come out of left field. The gifted ballet dancer whose parents each have two left feet. Or the kid who is a math genius, when her parents always hated math in school and can barely handle rudimentary household accounting. While you’re incredibly proud of your child’s accomplishments, it may be harder to relate to an interest you don’t share. Parenting books don’t tell you how to prepare to handle hundreds of cumulative hours sitting on the sidelines of a sport you don’t understand or — if you’re being totally honest — find boring. Add in sweltering heat or freezing cold, and it’s even more fun. And there needs to be a manual to help you navigate the one-sided conversations where junior excitedly gives you a blow-by-blow recounting of the last training camp or latest technique in excruciating — I mean fascinating — detail.

Then there are those situations that are tricky to navigate, when a child has spent years (and his parents have spent many thousands of dollars and hours) to reach a certain level of skill in a sport, artistic pursuit or academic specialty, only to burn out and announce that they no longer want to pursue it.

What’s a parent to do? Do we just accept the child’s decision? Try and talk them out of it? Or use that time-honored tactic of attempting to guilt them into sticking with it by bemoaning all the time and money that will be wasted and opportunities lost?

This is a moment that requires a deep breath and some serious parental introspection. Ask yourself: Whose need or whose dream is this — mine, or my child’s? And you can proceed from there.

As you gaze down at your newborn bundle of joy, you have no way of knowing whether that child will grow up to be a mini-me who earns a college scholarship for the same sport you played, or will just be an enthusiastic recreational player of middling ability. Maybe they’ll only be interested in sports they can play with their thumbs. They might be academically gifted or could be an indifferent student who opts to pursue a trade rather than go to college.

Regardless of the paths your children choose and whether or not they emulate any of your own interests and aptitudes, your role is to guide them where you can, and to nurture and encourage their passions to the best of your ability — even if you don’t share or understand them. That is an example of the true love of a parent, and something your kids can always be thankful for.

— Kim Himstreet is the 40-something mother of two teenage boys whom she and her husband have raised while living in three different countries and three U.S. states.

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