From the moment we meet our children, we project on to them the best of what we are and what we hope to be, and we continue to see ourselves in them for years to come. Yet it is important to be able to draw a line between parent and child and to recognize that our children are not downward extensions of ourselves.
This concept was brought into focus for me earlier this month when, in an extraordinary article in the New Yorker, a window was opened into the world of one parent and his relationship with his child. Peter Lanza’s son Adam took 26 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary on a shocking, cold day in December 2012, after killing his mother and before killing himself. This article represented Lanza’s first public communication about his son and the tragic incident.
As remarkable as the article’s content, in my opinion, is the fact that, after repeatedly refusing to speak with the media, Peter Lanza proactively sought out the writer, Andrew Solomon. The choice of Solomon is no surprise – he is one of the great mental health writers of our time and his most recent book relates directly to Lanza’s experiences. Far From the Tree, which I enthusiastically recommend, deals with parents and children who are vastly different from one another. These are families challenged by deafness, dwarfism, autism, children who are prodigies, conceived in rape or, as relates to Lanza, children who have committed horrific crimes. Solomon serves as a model for all of us as he eloquently humanizes his subjects by discouraging judgment and encouraging empathy. This approach and the unique, inspiring content of the book generate a perspective-altering experience and make it easy to understand why Lanza trusted Solomon to write this delicate piece. The trust was clearly well-placed.
Among the many lessons we might take away from Solomon’s work is that we are not our children. This is a message that bears repeating to one’s self, both in times of pride, to encourage humility and in times of shame, to encourage strength. We wince as our toddler falls, our heart soars as our children ascend to receive honors, and this is all adaptive. The more connected we feel to our children, the more we will risk for them, invest in them and be there for them. We are not our children but, as their parents, we are their initial guides in life. We are responsible for their upbringing and for teaching them to be thoughtful, ethical, engaged individuals. We do our best to help them navigate their way to an independent and productive adulthood.
We know that nature and nurture are not mutually exclusive, but rather collaborative forces. Our children are individuals who will take some of what we’ve offered and meld it with their own unique identity formed of the interaction between temperament and experience, all upon the canvas of neurobiology and genetics. As parents we should keep in mind that, in this interactive process, our role is of extreme importance. And yet, we must recognize the limitations of the influence we have on our children. We do color them with who we are and how we parent, but as Andrew Solomon has shown us in the case of Lanza and others, they are not otherwise blank slates.