Andre Pater, a renowned equine artist, conducted a tour of his work that my younger son and I attended. During the tour Pater was asked what advice he gives young artists on how to achieve success. He clarified that there are many ways to define success. He identified his greatest success as an artist being the feeling he gets when he creates something that deeply touches another person. He concluded by saying, “Above all, be yourself. After all, you cannot be anyone else anyway.”
What simple, straightforward advice. Be yourself. I mean, it’s two words. Yet, it presents a formidable challenge. For to be yourself, you have to know yourself. And the self you have to know changes over time. Recently I shared a related quote, “Becoming is superior to being.” This statement suggests that while “being” denotes a static, unchanging state, “becoming” recognizes the active, evolving nature of the self. Therefore I altered Pater’s advice to say, “Become yourself!”
“Become yourself” implies that we possess the power to choose who we are becoming. Last month I explored the relevance of this notion to the lifelong process of becoming a parent. But what about the implications of this directive to “become yourself” for our children? How do we assist them in discovering the power to become themselves and guide them to exercise it conscientiously? How do we facilitate the process of our children becoming themselves?
Visualize them. We are our children’s original mirrors. They come to know the earliest versions of themselves through their interactions with us. Create a vision of your child. Not a fixed vision, a flexible vision. A working vision of the kind of person you want her to become. Not the career you want her to pursue. We are raising people, not professions. A vision of the personal qualities and character you want your child to possess. Use this vision to direct your parental actions. What we reflect back to our children is what they come to believe about themselves.
Give them their story. Each of our children has a unique story. Tell your child her birth or adoption story. Tell her about all her “firsts” and early experiences. Share treasured memories. Keep a journal for her. Populate her story with people who love her. Tell her family history. If you don’t know her family history, research her culture and share its heritage. Our children need both roots and wings. The deeper the roots, the stronger the wings.
Prompt their vision. Encourage your child to create a personal vision of the individual she wants to become. Focus on personal qualities, problem-solving, and relationship skills that will serve her well throughout life. Emphasize the importance of self reflection and self correction.
Teach them to think before they speak. Teach your child to choose words that are more likely to be constructive than destructive. Use empathy-building questions, “How would you feel if that happened to you?” “What would you think if someone said that to you?” “What would you do in that situation?” Challenge her to consider, “If everyone said or did what you propose, would it be OK?” “What would that look like?” “If not, then should you?” “What might you do instead?” Discuss how she will know when she’s being true to the vision. Identify what she is already doing that fits her vision. Assess those aspects that do not fit and explore how she might bring about desired change. Help her establish realistic short and long-term goals. Guide her in discovering the abundance of possibilities within herself.
Model the personal qualities you value. It is not enough to tell our children how to behave. We have to show them. Remember — they may not be listening to everything we say, but they are watching everything we do. Demonstrate the personal qualities and character you want them to exhibit. Notice when they are doing what is expected. Recognize and express appreciation for their efforts and accomplishments. Be more anxious to catch them being good than being bad. When discipline is necessary, make it relevant, reasonable, and respectful. Model qualities you would be proud for them to emulate.
Becoming yourself is not the same as expressing yourself. Our culture is obsessed with self-expression and individuality, albeit a superficial understanding of individuality. Individuality is not defined by appearance, possessions, and friends. Individuality is apparent in spite of, not because of, mere outward trappings. The expression of our thoughts and feelings through our words and actions is inherently and utterly unique.
Individuality is a birthright. You cannot become anyone but yourself. The challenge is to fully realize the potential of the person each of us is capable of becoming.
This is the essence of our individuality and becoming ourselves. And, it is a reciprocal process. While we are becoming the parents our children need, they are becoming themselves. May we acquire the wisdom to assist them in ways that allow each of us to make the most of the best of ourselves.
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Ky. She has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator, and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, please e-mail paren