When we are born, our family claims us, forms our identity. Our parents give us our name, a first name that they choose and a last name that identifies the family we are part of. We see the world from our parents' arms, or from the stroller they push. We go where we are taken, meet the people our parents choose, see the places they take us, get used to having the things around us that they put there. Although an infant shows hints of their own personality, we are for the most part who our parents say we are.
Then, we go to school. At an age that seems too young to folks who watch the little ones line up to get on the school bus, we head off to JK. Our world grows exponentially. Our parent's still set the pattern: they choose the school. But now the teacher helps to frame the world. They set the atmosphere for how the children get along with each other. They teach a new way to deal with disagreements. We bring home the information we learn from the teacher. Even if the parent already knew how to spell 'cow' and that 'cow' rhymes with 'now', we have learned this on our own.
But, the teacher does not have control. There are more than twenty children in the class each with a different family background, each with different family patterns. The child comes home with new sayings that might come from the teacher, but also from a classmate, or sometimes from the grade eight kids in the school hallway. The child tries out a phrase at home that shocks the parents. They had no idea what they had heard, it just sounded cool. Parents shake their finger and tell the child not to ever use words like that again.
Now, the child has a choice. Suddenly, the parent's world is not the only world there is. They can choose to speak like their school friends or their parents. So begins a complex negotiation. All through elementary school, the parents set the pattern of life, but the activities the child will be involved in are, in part, their choice. One parent might love to ski and the other to play hockey, but the child has some choice whether the ski hill or the arena become the place to hang out every Saturday. Gymnastics or ballet classes are introduced by the parent, but how many classes a week depends on how much the child comes to love the activity.
But there are limits, and the child pushes against them. The parent does not want to drive to as many classes as the child desires. There is only so much money for spare time activities. Teacher and parent agree that homework comes first, to the child's dismay. The TV gets turned off. Limits are set to the video games. Freedom becomes a luxury that belongs to summer when school is out.
Then there is high school. The teen age years are about choice. For parents, it feels like they've lost control, sometimes wondering if they have passed anything to their children. The teen chooses the values they will live. They choose their friends. Family is still there, parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, but they have to decide how important each of them will be in their life.
For the youth and young adult, the task is to form the identity they will make their own. From the parents' perspective, there is frustration as the young adult makes a choice they would not make, they don't want them to make.
Those who analyze behaviour and development call this process "identification and separation". As we grow, we alternate between these two, learning to balance our ties to our roots and our own identity. Perhaps the hardest part of parenting is letting the times of separation happen. Sure, we want the child to grow up, but the reality of independence can hit hard.
When we look at the youth and young adults in our lives, we remind ourselves that we can never live another person's life for them. We provide the foundation. We make safe space for experimentation. Then, we provide the safety net to catch them if they fall.
Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.