In Khaled Hosseini’s master work The Kite Runner, the protagonist, a hypersensitive boy (Amir) who aspires to be a poet, is being raised by a domineering, athletic, and macho father (Baba). Observing the growing animosity and disconnect between father and son caused by their polar opposite personalities and aspirations, Rahim, Baba’s best friend and business partner, shares a bit of sage wisdom that I wish had been shared with me when I was a young father: “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them in with your favorite colors.”
The recent births of my two grand babies have reminded me of this quotation. I think too many parents, with good intentions, are like Baba in that they want to pass on their own interests, hobbies, lifestyles, etc. to their children. It’s only natural. But we’ve all known that parent who forces their child into sports, piano lessons, story time, etc. because the parent enjoys or values those activities, not the child. If we’re being honest, many of us have been that parent at least to some degree. I know I have been on both sides of that equation, and both cases have filled me with regret for the opportunities I or my children missed because of the narrow preferences of parents.
Admittedly, it is the necessary role of parents, at least initially, but, I’d argue, only temporarily, to draw the lines that set the boundaries of fundamental morals, values, and beliefs inside of which the child’s colors will bloom, but it is not wise to force blues into spaces where the child prefers pink or to insist on yellow when s/he prefers violet. I would also suggest that a parent should not overreact when their child colors outside of the preset lines or even completely forgoes the coloring book, preferring a blank sheet of paper on which to draw and to color in their own shapes. In fact, they should expect the former situation and be proud of the latter.
For what it’s worth and as Hosseini’s quotation suggests, I’ve come to believe that a parent’s function is to create fertile conditions in which their child’s innate personality is allowed to emerge — organically, naturally — rather than an environment in which the parent foists upon their child some predetermined vision of the type of child the they wish to possess and raise. I would go so far as to include matters of spirituality, gender, and sexual orientation in this process of emergence. As someone who has spent his adult years as a high school teacher surrounded by teenagers, I’ve witnessed first hand the damage done by the latter approach to child rearing, which is often a broken child and, eventually, a broken relationship with those overly-controlling parents.
What I’m one hundred percent positive of when I gaze at my granddaughters’ cherubic faces is that no child is born a racist, a sexist, or a homophobe. Such ignoble titles, like hatred itself, must be learned; none of them are hardwired at birth. It is incumbent upon parents, therefore, to teach their children the converse of these — meaning acceptance and inclusion — as the antidote to the lure of bigotry that wrongheaded others will attempt to poison their children with in the world at-large. As a parent of grown up children, I’m extremely proud that my wife and I, who have been anything but perfect parents, have done at least that much in guiding our boys into manhood.
Admittedly, I’m not an expert in child psychology, but neither were Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young when they poignantly sang, “Teach your children well,” for the things we learn first, we tend to learn deeply, and they are the most difficult to un-learn.
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