Parents want their children to be like them; parents want their children to be better than them; and parents do not want their children to be like them.
Despite Hobbes‘ shrewd remark that most humans are content with their congenital endowments of intelligence and talent, we are often quite aware of our shortcomings, intellectual and psychological alike. (Our physical falling-short is quite brutally drilled into us from an early age onwards.) These infirmities afflict many ventures of ours and often leave us feeling ill-equipped to take on the particular vagaries and challenges of this world: “I am too diffident; I am not assertive enough; I do not speak up enough; I am too shy; I am too rude; I am not a good listener; I am too quick to back down.” And on and on. Some of these self-assessments are too flagellatory; some represent a hard-earned insight gained after long bouts of introspection, sometimes guided, sometimes independent.
Be that as it may, these self-assessments may afflict us with some alarm when we consider our offspring’s prospects in his or her life. We are happy and grateful that our genetic endowment of reasonably good health has been conveyed to our child, but we fret about whether her psychological inheritance might not be too much of a burden. How much, really, do we want our child to be like us when we consider our particular characters and dispositions to have burdened us considerably on our journeys? Don’t we, after all, wish we were constituted differently so that we could be stronger, more resilient, more temperamentally capable? What a terrible misfortune it would be for our child were it to be similarly afflicted.
I often accompany my little daughter to local playgrounds and neighborhood playdates. I watch her interact with other children her age; I watch her enter into bouts of contestation, partnership, sharing, dispute, argument, and reconciliation; I see her assert herself, back down, flee, hold her ground, get shoved aside. Sometimes she is hesitant, sometimes shy; sometimes she makes clear she prefers the company of her parents; sometimes she is bewildered by the little people with whom she is supposed to interact and make ‘friends.’
And as I watch her, I often catch myself wishing that she will ‘not be like me.’ I did not consider my ride through the gauntlet of childhood a smooth one; I often wished I had been equipped differently for, had responded differently to, its many challenges and reckonings. (And as I have noted, I have no desire to ‘do it over.’) I wish my child no part of the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, which so often colored my interactions with other children and which surely played a substantial role in the construction of the world view with which I am equipped today. I want my child to experience a world different and ‘better’ from the one I did; I sense the first step in the construction of that contrast is for her to not be like me. I know she won’t, but I want those differences to be the ‘right’ ones.