Accepting Children (and Yourself and Everyone Else)
One day I was sitting in a marriage seminar, listening to them talk about accepting your spouse, instead of trying to change your spouse. This is important, good advice, though I had heard it before. Suddenly I realized I should have this exact same attitude towards my young daughters. I also knew, in my flash of insight, that this was contrary to my view of parenting.
So this is mostly about accepting your child, and what that means, and why it can work. I try a little to explain what "acceptance" means, and I generalize to accepting yourself and everything else.
Introduction: Accept and Enjoy
The attitude of acceptance is not easy to describe, and I don't think the word "acceptance" captures the full meaning. So let me try to explain. Everyone has faults. Sometimes these are minor faults; sometimes these are major faults. Sometimes they just seem like faults to you, because of who you are and what you like. Or maybe they are just idiosyncracies, things that are different but not bad. (However, idiosyncracies can become annoying.) Or maybe they are traits that are good in some situations and not in others.
Acceptance is different from love. Acceptance is about your reaction to these faults. You can love a person and still want to change the person's faults. Acceptance means that you don't try to change the faults, you accept the person as they are. At it strongest, you like or love the person for who they are, and that includes the faults.
Many people have the notion that they like most of the traits of their spouse or friend, but not all of them. They think that "acceptance" means liking all of the traits of their friend or spouse. It does not. Acceptance is about liking the person, not about liking the person's traits.
It is fairly easy to accept these supposed faults in your friends. Unfortunately, it is difficult to extend this accepting attitude towards your spouse. It is natural to try to improve your relationship, so that it works for you. Part of this is improving your spouse. For example, my wife cannot remember which way to put paper toweling and toilet paper on a roll. This is a small thing, to be sure, but it would not take much effort on her part to learn the correct way. That would relieve only a very minor frustration, to be sure, but years and years of that frustration.
When you live with someone, and interact with them, you have lots of opportunity to find these minor faults. For whatever reason, this leads to trying to change and improve your spouse.
The problem is, trying to change your spouse doesn't work well in a marriage. Unless your spouse wants to change, you are fighting with your spouse. Fighting isn't good for your relationship. And you are not loving your spouse for who he/she is. That isn't good either. So, common advice is for a marriage is to try to accept your spouse. I am not saying this is easy, I am just saying it is good advice.
The proper attitude goes beyond mere acceptance. The idea is that if you love someone, you can even appreciate and enjoy the ways your spouse is different from you. You can see these differences as faults, or you can view them as idiosyncracies to enjoy and appreciate. The good attitude, for your marriage, is to view them as treasured idiosyncracies.
For example, one wife hated her husband's stinky feet. But after he died, she would given anything to have those stinky feet back. Or, my wife plans too much, and it is natural that this would annoy me. But her planning is often good. So ideally, I should appreciate her planning, or at least accept it. I am not going to change it, and it isn't good for our marriage to fight about it.
Look at this from the other direction. Do you want to spend your time with someone who is trying to correct and improve you? Or with someone who appreciates and enjoys you for who you are?
Okay, if you were a child, would you want your parents to accept and love you for who you were? Or would you want to fight with them as they tried to change you?
That's a no-brainer. If you try to change your child, you are not liking your child as your child is now, and you are fighting with your child. Your child won't like it, and you won't enjoy it either. For the exact same reason that it works to accept your spouse, it works to accept your child.
So I started trying to just accept and love my daughters, even their faults. It immediately and greatly improved my relationship with them. Of course, they want to be around someone who enjoys them, not someone who is trying to correct them. It was more enjoyable for me too.
For example, around age 7 my older daughter starting falling. She would fall out of her chair, because she wasn't sitting in it right. She would be so careless in her posture, and so figidity, she would even fall while standing. Of course, the foregoing is phrased as if I was annoyed. Actually, I delighted in her ability to fall. I would be absolutely amazed that she could fall while standing on a flat floor. She went along with this and we would laugh about her amazing ability. When my younger daughter went through her "falling" phase, we laughed about that like it was tradition.
More generally, seven-year-olds are a walking bundle of faults, encapsulated in an attitude that everything they do is right. Why not enjoy her being a seven-year-old?
"Okay," you say, "That sounds happy. But there is one very big difference between my spouse and my children. It is my responsibility, as a parent, to help my children grow into mature, wise, knowledgeable, kind, happy adults. Than means they need to change." (Also, their faults are not the unchangeable habits of the lifetime.)
So good parenting would seem to include correcting and improving your children. In other words, trying to change them from what they are to what they should be. This creates a paradox -- how can you accept your chilren yet cause them to grow?
Resolving the Paradox: Growth
The answer, I think, is this. You might think that you, as parent, have to be the engine of change -- if you don't push your children, they will never grow. This is absolutely not true. Children want to grow. They want to be stronger, more competent, more adult. So, you do not need to push them to grow. Instead, you can accept your children.
Of course, if you want your children to grow in one direction and they want to grow in another, then you have to push and fight. Similarly, if you want them to grow faster than they want to grow, you have to push and fight. But for all of your pushing and fighting, you still probably won't succeed -- they will grow in their own direction and their own pace. So all your pushing and fighting will accomplish is that you spend less time loving and supporting your children.
What do children really need to grow? Love. Acceptance. Someone to support them, encourage them, root for them, be with them when they succeed and when they fail. Maybe even help them. Encouragement. They don't need someone telling them their faults and how they should change. Don't push. Accept them, encourage them, support them.
I was sharing this insight with a friend, and I realized that he did not have this attitude towards himself. He was not accepting and appreciating his idiosyncracies. To the contrary, he had an idea of how he should change, of what he should be like, and he was constantly pushing himself to change and be better.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be better. That was good. But his lack of acceptance was sapping his energy. He had to accept that he was a person with faults and stop beating himself up because he had faults.
I sincerely believe that people can grow only when they are first being themselves. So the best step to being the person he wanted to be was to first accept and appreciate himself for who he was.
Of course, if this advice applied to him, then it also applied to me. So I tried accepting myself. I like life a lot better when I accept myself.
So accept and enjoy your idiosyncracies. Humans are not perfect. If you want to grow, that's good, but you accept yourself and grow too.
To Infinity and Beyond
After this insight, I was trying to accept and appreciate myself, my wife, my daughters, and my friends. Then I had the insight, why not go for the whole ball of wax? Why not just accept and appreciate everything? Life, the weather, the world, everything.
Robert Frick (Ph.D.)