That’s a shocking question to ask any parent, but Kahlil Gibran categorically answered it in his poem “Your Children are not Your Children.” No surprise that we parents often resist this message, or maybe we are simply unable to hear it because we are too busy trying to make our children into better or happier human beings.
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself,” he wrote in The Prophet. But who is listening? Well, sometimes the children are! When she was ten years old my daughter fired those words at me one festive Sunday afternoon, at a outdoor gathering of families in Lima (Peru). Someone had asked the children to entertain us with a few skits and poems that held special meaning for them. So when her turn came, she stood at the center of the grassy “stage.” Aiming her eyes at me, she read Gibran’s poem in a defiant voice. Clearly, I must have already been stepping on her toes.
I hope other parents are as lucky in their children as I — demanding, sharp-eyed, no-holds-barred educators from their early years. They often helped me focus on True North when I wandered from the straight and narrow. It’s an uncomfortable gift I’d wish on any parent — to be startled out of extremist parental striving or naive assumptions of authority and propelled back on course!
Here’s another example: like many a divorced parent, searching half-unconsciously for another father for the children., I brought an attractive man to dinner. In a somewhat treacly voice, I asked another child: “Well, did you like him?” Immediately, the issue was clarified: “It doesn’t matter what I think of him, Mother. The question is, do YOU like him?”
Not surprisingly, these ‘corrections’ are often hurtful, puncturing my dream of being a sustaining force or a guiding light. At other times a ‘keep off’ sign can be quite entertaining. This erring mom was often made to chuckle even as she took in the unwelcome message that she was treading on someone else’s turf. As I offered profound advice on one topic or another, one adolescent would ask gently, in a voice of curiosity rather than challenge: “What did you say? Am I hearing you right?” I then have a choice. Do I register the fact that a major message is coming through or I do I put my foot into the fire to explain or repeat myself as I often do? In any case, I’ve been warned!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating kids who fight every step of the way through puberty, screaming at their parents: “Leave me alone!” But that familiar adolescent cry: “Don’t tell me what to do!” may be a legitimate message. While most of us have been deeply (and justifiably) engaged for years in discovering a “better” path for our kids and trying to develop their ability to walk on it, we are often blind to the possibility that our energy is misdirected, or even that our job is now over. If so, at some point we may actually stop listening to them. So if you want to be a good parent, start paying attention to any indications that your children have their own life and want to live it their way.
Our children need help, encouragement, education, discipline. How else will they learn to discipline themselves, to fight for what they want, discard the compromising solution, and know what they need to know? Nevertheless, the time of final freedom must come, whether they jump willingly from the nest, claw their way out, or need to be pushed out by ‘tough love.’ Because our children are not ours. They belong to life.
“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… you are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth…”