Simple Parenting: Deconstructing Boxes

Photo by Chris Lawton

When I was 17 years old, my mom told me that my only option was to join the armed forces. She was exhausted, and I was lost. This was an ultimatum: join, or leave the house for good. Enlisting was even more unimaginable than leaving, so I left. I bounced from family to family until I graduated from high school, went to college, developed a career as a photographer, built a few businesses, and started a family.

Fourteen years after packing my bags, I have two children of my own. I can look back on that moment through the lens of motherhood, and I see my mother differently. I see a woman raised in poverty, raising children alone when she was still half a child herself. To her, the armed forces meant stability. She wasn’t trying to ruin my life; she was trying to help me.

As I look back with deep empathy, I also look forward with hope. Patterns don’t have to become cycles. She wasn’t able to see my skills at 17 as strengths that could take me somewhere. Because she couldn’t see them, she was not able to support me in building them, and could not guide me towards a path where my teenage skills would become a stability-creating career.

When children are born, they are tiny little humans already imbued with strengths, talents, gifts, and also weaknesses. Part of the job as a parent is to guide them in the identification of these, both good and bad. I look back at my younger self, and I see a child who read Walt Whitman at the age of eight, and who was writing short stories (albeit simple ones) by ten. I was a little girl who lived poetry and breathed music, painting, and photography. They were my strengths, talents, and gifts. But they are also not the sort of gifts that my mother was used to. They didn’t fit into the boxes she’d had to choose from, or that she laid before me.

From childhood to old age, it is in our nature to want to be seen and heard. We desire for someone to come alongside us and shine a light on the areas in which we are naturally gifted, illuminating the innate strengths within. When a parent is able to identify, nurture, affirm, and help their children recognize their natural strengths and weaknesses, that child is more likely to feel confident, accomplished, successful, and they are then better able to identify, encourage, and affirm the lives and qualities of others.

So we need to be self-aware of our limitations, and open to the strengths within our children that may be different from our own. Kids aren’t, after all, little personal replicas of their parents. If they were, I’d probably have joined the army.

Spend time getting to know your kids by letting them lead the way. Dedicate an afternoon to activities they get to pick — and, yes, that means saying yes to daddy-son tea parties, mommy-daughter paintball, and all the other gender-construct-bending combinations kids come up with when they’re freed from societal expectations. When you see a weakness, take a moment to reflect without pushing. When you see a strength or skill, affirm and encourage it — also without pushing.

Growing up in the Panhandle, you become accustomed to bridges. I remember the first time I crossed the three-mile-long Pensacola Bay Bridge after deciding to leave home. My window was down, my arm hung over the edge, and the salty sea air embraced my fear. A part of me felt liberated, but much of me was terrified. I had decided who I wasn’t, but I had no idea who I was. I didn’t know what my strengths were, or how I would ever be successful. I spent the next fourteen years destroying the boxes I’d been offered, so my kids will never be forced to choose from a selection of preset options. They’ll get to build their own.


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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.