Has anyone else spent an hour of their life in a conversation about the things that “set us apart from the animals”? You may have to think back. This is usually one of those senior year of high school type topics (right around the time someone in English class pipes up with the idea that maybe this world is just an illusion!). In the humans-are-different-from-animals discussion, somebody says opposable thumbs. Then somebody points out that a bunch of apes and monkeys and raccoons already did that. Then somebody says language only to set up the scene for a brief argument about whether Coco the Gorilla and vervet monkeys and dolphins and forest elephants are really using language. Then somebody says a soul and everybody else has to get solemn and nod respectfully. Well, that’s my recollection of how that conversation goes, anyway.
I’m gonna throw out there that, for the purposes of this blog post (and there is no higher purpose, right?) the primary distinction between humankind and the beasts of the field is that we are really good at telling ourselves stories that let us ignore reality in hopes that it changes to suit our needs. Other animals just aren’t as good at coming up with creative excuses to explain why things should stay comfortably predictable.
When my daughter was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, I was able to accept it and approach it rationally and then move forward. Except when I wasn’t. I mean, I got her to all sorts of medical appointments and got her medications and tried to help her understand what was going on with her body. But I didn’t really get that it was one of those things that affects who a person actually is. I had a hard time accepting that the whole thing was more than just an ordeal that the person I’d come to know, the daughter who was walking at 10 months and running and jumping just a few months later, had fundamentally changed – and not just physically. It had shaken her confidence. Her understanding of her diagnosis had become a little piece of who she was. Because I don’t like juvenile arthritis, I’d compartmentalized it away as something transient and completely separate from who she was. I had a sort of story constructed in my head where she had a chronic illness that gave us a series of tasks, but that magically had no impact on how she felt about herself.
Ultimately, that wasn’t helpful. It didn’t do anything to address her fears and made it harder to give her what she needed. It wasn’t until I was able to accept the impact that her arthritis was having on who she was that I was able to give her tools to help her come to terms with it.
Here’s the reality: people – especially kids – are in a constant state of change. That may be easier to remember when they’re younger and changing faster. Once kids get to be school aged and they’ve developed more of their own ideas and preferences and personalities, it’s a challenge to think of them as the people they are at any given moment rather than who we remember them as from last week or last month or last year.
But it’s important to accept who they are in each moment – and not just in the wake of big crises like a new illness. Kids need the freedom to change and grow from little things, too. The more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I am that how we handle this as parents is likely to influence how much they trust us to support them in the future. Will they imagine that we’ll always want to be there for them if we’re not able to demonstrate that we’re cool with whoever they are now? If I ignore the reality that my son loves computer stuff because I’m just not into it or if I minimize the importance of juvenile arthritis to my daughter’s identity because I fear disease, I’ll be showing them that other things that are important to who they are may not be important or acceptable to me. So things like career goals, sexual orientation, interests, and relationships might become a source of shame and conflict instead of pride.
Kids need people they can trust as they create an identity that they’ll tweak and build on throughout their lives. We parents ought to be those kind of people for them. But we can’t be if we’re too busy trying to parent the kids we imagine we have instead of the kids we have in reality.