Relationships give life meaning. The relationships we build with our children can enrich us in ways that no other relationships do. I am experiencing this on several different levels with my preschool-through-teenage children. And while I don’t have any grown children, I’ve witnessed first-hand just how rich the parent-child relationship can be after the child grows into adulthood. In my opinion, one of the most fulfilling aspects of parenting is getting to know your children.
Back when our eldest was our only child, I didn’t realize just how early a child’s personality begins to manifest. Because I didn’t expect to be able to get to know my baby’s personality until he could at least speak, I don’t think I paid too much attention to behaviors that could have given me a clue that Samuel was a methodical, logical, and analytical person. I just accepted all his behaviors as normal for a child of his age—that is, until his little brother came along when Samuel was 22 months old. That’s when I realized that even babies have personality traits.
We knew from day one that Kiyoshi was very different from Samuel. He was so emotional! We saw this most vividly in the enraged fits of screaming that would possess him. As he grew older, we began to recognize other emotions as well, and all were equally strong. He is someone who feels things intensely.
So by the time our third child Peter was born, I knew to be watching for signs of his personality from the first days of his life. What I observed was a child so content that he actually seemed lazy. He started sleeping through the night during his first week of life, and he rarely cried. He was a thumb-sucker, and as long as he had his thumb, he was content simply to watch the world around him. He passed all the developmental milestones—like rolling over and sitting up—late, but it didn’t seem like a lack of ability. Rather, he simply lacked interest and motivation. He was content not to roll over, so why should he expend the effort? When he still hadn’t started walking at a year and a half and people around me were starting to get worried, I knew that he simply didn’t want to walk, and he’d get around to it when he felt like it. I was right.
Our fourth son James was totally different. We started calling him our “go-getter” before he could even walk! One day he was playing with a ball, and it rolled under the couch. He did a determined army crawl on his belly to the couch to retrieve his plaything. The ball was just out of reach, but the couch had enough clearance for James to almost worm his way under it. So, arm extended in front of him as he lay on his belly, head held perpendicular to the floor, he repeatedly smashed his face against the crack under the couch, trying desperately to reach the ball that was just beyond his fingertips. Though his first few attempts should have convinced him that it was impossible, he refused to give up. I watched, fascinated by his quiet but fruitless determination. And then, it happened. He got the ball. By sheer force of will, he finally managed to smash his face hard enough and stretch his arm long enough for his fingers to make contact with the ball. My fascination turned to amazement. This boy had determination! His reaction to finally capturing that ball demonstrated another character trait, confidence, because he didn’t seem the slightest bit excited about regaining the ball, as if he had always known that he would succeed in the end.
As I contemplated what this situation showed me about my fourth son, I started to imagine how his older brothers would have responded to the exact same situation when they had been James’ age. Samuel, my methodical, logical, and analytical boy, would have paused after the first attempt and examined the position of the ball and the size of the gap under the couch, and he would have realized that if he put his head sideways, with his ear against the floor, he would be able to push his head all the way under the couch and easily retrieve the ball. Kiyoshi, my passionate child, would have started to scream in rage and frustration after being unable to reach the ball, and he would not have stopped until either someone got the ball for him, or he became too exhausted to go on screaming. Peter would simply have sucked his thumb as he watched the ball roll under the couch and would have made no attempt to go get it. It was a fun thought experiment, and I’m pretty sure that I correctly predicted how each child would have reacted.
Later, after our fifth and sixth children were born, I found myself revisiting this scenario in my mind. Our Andrew is a very sensitive person. His default facial expression is one of perplexity or worry, and he gets his feelings hurt very easily. I think that if he had lost the ball under the couch, he would immediately have begun to cry huge tears of hurt and disappointment. Isaac, our youngest, is an extremely cheerful, people-oriented person, and as soon as he realized that he couldn’t reach the ball, he would have crawled to find me or my husband, led us back to the couch, made eye contact with us—his expression open and trusting—and then looked under the couch at the ball until we understood that he was asking us to get it for him. I’m sure of this, because before he was able to talk, he was constantly leading me or my husband around by the finger to show us what he wanted.
It’s so much fun to discover a child’s personality as he is discovering the world. Later, when aspects of that personality begin to clash with aspects of your personality, it doesn’t always feel fun, but the gift of really knowing our children and loving them no matter what is one of the greatest things we can ever give them. And so I never want to stop learning about my children. I want to observe and listen, to be present and pay attention, to know and anticipate their needs. I want to be the leading expert on each of them, their greatest advocate, and ultimately one of their best friends. But I’m not there yet. How do I get there?
I think it all comes down to choices. Every day I face hundreds of decisions where I can either build a relationship with one of my children or do something else. I can get up to take care of the early riser . . . or pretend I’m still asleep and hope the child goes back to bed. I can put my phone aside to make eye-contact with the child who is trying to tell me something . . . or I can listen distractedly while I continue writing the important text message I was trying to compose before he interrupted me. I can shuffle my schedule around and leave a few things on my to-do list undone to make time for the teenager who is asking to do something special with me . . . or I can explain why it won’t work today and promise to try to do it another day. I can sit down to read a bedtime story to my little ones . . . or I say I’m exhausted and it’s just too late. No matter how justified I might feel in choosing the second option in each of these scenarios, a pattern of usually choosing something else besides building my relationships with my children will not take me where I want to go. So it is with fresh resolve and renewed vision that I face tomorrow and the hundreds of decisions that will give me hundreds of opportunities to get to know my children better. God, help me make good decisions!
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