My youngest son, who is 14, was recently having a problem at school and while racking my brain trying to search my memory banks for what would have worked to resolve the issue for his older brothers, I realized that the answer wouldn’t really matter because each one of my boys is so different. I have found that one of the most difficult and frustrating things about being a parent is that prior experience is not always helpful and, in fact, one size parenting definitely does not fit all.
I shouldn’t have been surprised at how dissimilar my three sons are from each other; I often hear parents marvel at how different their child is from his or her siblings. Even my friend who has identical twin daughters often tells me how different her girls are—they have selected unrelated career paths and have even chosen to live on opposite sides of the country. For a long time, despite the fact that many people (including myself) were unable to tell them apart, my friend was certain they were not actually identical because their personalities were so distinctive.
Despite my sons’ differences, I somehow thought that the knowledge I had gained as a parent, with both its successes and failures, could be reapplied towards the next child. Perhaps I wanted to fool myself into thinking that there was a learning curve and I actually knew what I was doing by the time the last one came along. When my oldest son was born, I knew that I had no parenting experience and accepted that I would need on the job training. When my next son came along four and a half years later, and certainly by the time the youngest arrived five years after him, I figured I kind of knew the drill and in many ways I did. I was certainly more adroit at changing diapers, making bottles, and handling other physical skills associated with being a mom. I usually knew when they were getting sick or had a fever even before they did.
However, when it came to understanding my boys’ personalities and what made each of them tick, I realized that I was starting from scratch with each one. Whereas one child was high-strung, the next was more laid back. When certain punishments or enticements worked with one, they had no impact with another. While yelling (I admit I’m a bit of a yeller) failed to make the oldest even blink, my other children would well up with tears, making me feel like an ogre. I have learned that for some kids gentle prodding is best, for others a less subtle approach might be more effective. Maintaining flexibility is the only absolute I know.
You would think there would be some overlap in my sons’ personalities. And I suppose there is, to the extent that they are humanoids who breathe, walk, talk, and make a mess. But each one is a unique model and I suspect that even if I had another ten children, besides having a nervous breakdown, I would be astonished by each child’s individuality. What I have learned as a parent is that my sons’ different interests and abilities are mostly part of their hard wiring. Other factors, such as birth order, seem to play an additional role in who they become. I am convinced that my youngest son hates discord because he was raised in such a raucous atmosphere—when he wants to get his point across he prefers to be quietly defiant. Sometimes I think that my boys purposefully pursue different paths to avoid comparisons or competition.
One of the most brilliant comments I have ever heard in reference to parenting came from a woman I met at a science program when my oldest son was in high school. While chatting with the woman, she happened to mention that she had four children, two boys and two girls. Because I only have sons, I asked her if she thought that girls were easier to raise than boys. She thought for a moment and, with carefully chosen words, said: “Each child comes with different problems and different pleasures.” I have never forgotten her words and try to embrace the whole package, which includes the good and the bad, that is each of my boys.
As I continue to try to decipher and guide these beings entrusted in my care, I know that, my parenting, like my children, is still a work in progress. I accept that I will never have all the answers; I only hope that, as my sons and I journey together, we all find our best selves.
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