Contrary to what some parents might believe or hope for, children are not born a blank slate. Rather, they come into the world with predetermined abilities, proclivities and temperaments that nurturing parents may be able to foster or modify, but can rarely reverse.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Jeanne and John Schwartz, parents of three children, the youngest of whom — Joseph — is completely different from the other two.
Offered a bin of toys, their daughter, Elizabeth, picked out the Barbies and their son Sam the trucks. But Joseph, like his sister, ignored the trucks and chose the dolls, which he dressed with great care. He begged for pink light-up shoes with rhinestones and, at 3, asked to be “a disco yady” forHalloween.
Joseph loved words and books, but “our attempts to get him into sports, which Sam had loved so much, were frustrating bordering on the disastrous,” Mr. Schwartz, a national correspondent for The New York Times, wrote in a caring and instructive new memoir, “Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality” (Gotham Books).
“This is not just a book about raising a gay child,” Mr. Schwartz said in an interview. “It’s about raising children who are different,” both recognizing and adapting to those differences and being advocates for the children who possess them. Citing the novel “The Martian Child,” about an adopted son, he said, “We’ve got to take care of our little Martians.”
The goal of parenting should be to raise children with a healthy self-image and self-esteem, ingredients vital to success in school and life. That means accepting children the way they are born — gay or straight, athletic or cerebral, gentle or tough, highly intelligent or less so, scrawny or chubby, shy or outgoing, good eaters or picky ones.
Of course, to the best of their ability, parents should give children opportunities to learn and enjoy activities that might be outside their natural bent. But, as attested to in many a memoir, forcing children to follow a prescribed formula almost always backfires.
For example, everyone in my family is a jock, with a strong belief in the importance of physical activity. Everyone, that is, except one of my four grandsons. Now 10, he is an intellectual, and has been since age 3, when he learned the entire world’s atlas of animals. He absorbs scientific information like a sponge and retains it. He can tell you about deep-sea creatures, planets and stars, chemical reactions, exotic caterpillars, geological formations — you name it — and he’s a whiz at the computer. But he has no athletic interest or apparent ability. His parents have introduced him to a variety of team and individual sports, but so far none has clicked.
Rather than try to remake him into someone he is not, the challenge for all of us is to appreciate and adapt to his differences, love him for who he is and not disparage him for what he is not. While the other three boys get basketballs, bicycles and tennis rackets as gifts, for his 10th birthday I gave him a huge book on the universe, which became his bedtime reading.
One persuasive voice for differences in children and how families must adapt better is Andrew Solomon, author of an ambitious new book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” published this month by Scribner. Mr. Solomon, a gay man who has fathered four children, one of whom he is raising with his husband, has explored in depth the challenges and rewards of family diversity.
Mr. Solomon, who has written articles for The Times, interviewed more than 300 families, most of whom have successfully raised children who are deaf, dwarfs, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender, are prodigies or haveDown syndrome, as well as those who were conceived in rape or became criminals.
He makes a strong case for accepting one’s children for who they are and, at the same time, helping them become the best they can be. Especially poignant is his account of a family with a high-functioning son with Down syndrome. For years, the boy progressed academically on pace with his peers and was a poster child for what a person with Down syndrome could do. But when the son could go no further, his mother recognized that he needed to be in a group home.
“We had worked so hard to make him the Down syndrome guy who didn’t need it,” the mother told Mr. Solomon. “But I had to look at what was best for him, and not some ideal we had built up for ourselves.”
Most of the parents interviewed found a lot of meaning and many rewards in dealing with a child who was different. “They told me it has given them a so much richer life that they wouldn’t have given it up for all the world,” Mr. Solomon said. “There are many ways to exist in this world and many different ways to be happy.”
As Mr. Schwartz described Joseph: “He’s a delightful guy, a joy. I couldn’t have made that mold. You can’t expect your kids to turn out as you planned, but you can be thrilled by how they turn out.”
He added: “You want your children to achieve and be comfortable with who they are. You should advocate for them and help them develop the skills to advocate for themselves. But parents shouldn’t try to mold their children. When you expect your kids to fit into a mold, especially a mold of your own making, you’ll be disappointed.”
Schools, too, should know how to accommodate children who are different, said Mr. Schwartz, whose book details the struggles his son faced even in a town with great schools.
It’s not just a matter of schools dealing effectively with bullying, he said. “Jeanne and I believe schools can do a lot with the resources they have to embrace differences in kids and recognize when they are unduly stressed,” he said.
Even with accepting and encouraging parents, Joseph Schwartz was unable for years to acknowledge his gay identity, which resulted in serious academic, social and psychological problems. Each of Mr. Solomon’s families also faced identity struggles, and many were helped greatly by finding peers with similar challenges, a task made so much easier by the Internet.
For many parents, he said, raising children who were different was “an occasion for growth that introduced them to social networks they never imagined.”
He said, “It added richness to the lives of those who said they could see a positive side to having a child who was different.”