A Million Open doors

by Sam Melden

(Originally written for the February edition of Toledo Area Parent)

It’s true what they say about your third child getting much different treatment than your first. Think about birthdays. It’s just so anti-climactic, isn’t it? You’ve been there before. You have other kids demanding attention, running around sucking up your time, energy, money and imagination just like that vacuum cleaner you forgot to run. Who has time to plan a party? Before we develop too much pity for the short-straws of our families, of course, there is a flip side to all of this. Your youngest always has more people singing her song because her big sisters are so excited to celebrate her life. Nothing like when your oldest sat there alone with his parents watching him eat his first birthday cake. Hardly compares to being born into a party. That said, we will save the topic of sibling dynamics for another day.

In our family our youngest child just turned 1 and I was again reminded of the word that comes to mind as a baby finishes their first trip around the sun: wonder. Every time I see a new born learn out how to pick up those little packing-peanut like treats (cleverly named “puffs”) or watch them grow teeth right before my eyes I find myself filled with wonder. I wonder how it all works? How does a mini human being learn to chew? How did they universally agree to play fetch with their parents one day? “You set the spoon on my tray, I pick it up with interest just before I drop it on the floor. You retrieve it for me and round and round we go.” There is so much about this stage of a child’s life that makes me wonder.

I also wonder about heavier things, about the future and who they are as people and who they will become. I wonder about who they will fall in love with and what instrument they will want to play and what clothes they will wear that will make their parents crazy? I wonder about their hopes for education and what type of career they might pursue.

Here is the truth: wonder holds the key to this whole parenting game we are playing. I believe, to try to cultivate and protect a sense of wonder toward our children is one of the greatest tasks we have. Often I refer to this concept in terms of certainty and curiosity.

Certainty is the opposite of wonder. When we are certain about who our children will become we lose the ability to wonder about their future. We simply fill the gaps, color in the lines and tell ourselves a fairy tale that won’t come true. The parent who lives vicariously through their children risks losing that life when their child takes a different path. We all know this to be true. Living through someone else, is no life at all. When I look at my 6 year old and marvel at how she is excelling in her piano lessons I have two options: become certain that she will keep with it, love playing her music for the rest of her life and go on to have a successful musical career. This of course is fraught with issues for everyone involved. Being certain about how your little one will turn out is like closing a million doors leading all different directions out of a belief that you know best. And, we see this all the time as parents of young children evolve into parents of adult children. Years of certainty and dogmatic belief in a future never realized causes frayed relationships and shattered expectations.

Now, consider what happens when we cultivate a curiosity about our children. If we can hold on to a sense of wonder and curiosity, we not only guard ourselves against unmet expectations but we leave open those doors to what is possible. They are free to explore and travel and meet new friends and form their own passions and ideas. This of course is the risk involved in every intimate relationship. The more I can remain curious of my wife’s changing interests, needs and desires the stronger our relationship becomes. Wonder and curiosity lay a healthy foundation in a family because they grant permission to grow and explore. And a bed of soil to sprout from, a nest fly from is what we all need.

Imagine if we carried this curiosity into other areas of our life as well? How might our relationships with co-workers improve if we left our certainty at the door and approached their perspective and ideas with genuine curiosity? This is the path we walk to truly understand another perspective. We need this in our political conversation as well. A bona-fide curiosity about the other side’s political convictions can help us remember the original intent of our democracy. We all need curiosity and wonder in our lives, perhaps most of all in relation to the little ones we have been given the task of caring for and believing in.

When we look at our children with the permission-giving curiosity that only a parent can, we create a space for our children to grow into who they will become. And in that moment we will find that familiar feeling of wonder that we created this person and we get to watch them grow and mature and walk through whichever door they choose. What a gift.