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Putting Acceptance to the Test

November 20, 2013

Back in February, Susie Raskin wrote a great blog called “ and she talked about creating a balance between wanting the best for our children, encouraging them to achieve and allowing them to find their own path. When I read her post, I thought I should write about what it’s like to parent a young adult and put my good intentions about acceptance to the test as he makes his own choices. The truth is, though, I have been in the midst of NOT accepting my son’s choices and trying to rationalize my thinking.  And now here I am, more than six months later, still wrestling with the dilemma.

Teaching your children to think for themselves is a good thing, right?

When Brandon first came to live with us, he would often try really hard to please us. We were concerned about it because we didn’t want him to feel like he had to be good enough to be our child. This can be a hazard for children who are adopted, especially if they are adopted after infancy when they can remember being in temporary care with relatives or a foster family. In those early days, he would try to be “really good” and he usually succeeded. However, there were times when he would get stressed or upset and melt down into a tantrum or fit of rage. After we came out the other side of those episodes, we intentionally reassured him and made sure we talked about us being a forever family, saying we were going to stick together no matter what.

When he hit adolescence I kept expecting he might reject our values or rebel, but he didn’t do that in any significant way. He had little episodes of breaking rules, and we followed up with consequences as appropriate and always talked about why the rule had been set in the first place. Our main emphasis was on helping Brandon learn to think through his decisions and make choices for himself.

I see now that we did a great job of teaching him to think for himself but I’ve had challenges celebrating our success in this area. We had hoped Brandon would go to college but it was clear by the beginning of his senior year that he needed a break from sitting in a classroom. He is very bright and could certainly succeed at anything he undertakes but he strongly prefers to learn by doing rather than by reading or listening. So we made the plan for him to attend an auto mechanics program at a tech school. Unfortunately, he broke his wrist climbing a tree in the rain during the summer and had to have surgery. This delayed his school entry for a semester.

After two semesters (with just one more to go), he decided he’d had enough of auto mechanics school and he withdrew. We had told him that we’d support him while he was in school but also said if he decided to work, he was going to have to pay rent and his other expenses. He was slightly surprised when we stuck with this decision, but he got a full-time job with benefits and started paying rent. I see now that what I was really thinking is that the threat of having to pay rent would keep him in school. No such luck! He’s consistently paid his rent and other expenses on time and he’s perfectly happy working. No plans to go back to school at this time. I added “at this time” to the previous sentence. He would just say “No plans to go back to school.  I like working.” As you can see, my own ambitions for him are still on my mind. I am proud of his consistency in working—he’s changed jobs but maintained employment but I’m still focused on “something better” for him. Of course, this is only “better” in my opinion. He is gaining skills and experience that are valuable.

And this isn’t the worst thing for me. During the last couple of years Brandon has decided that getting tattoos is his hobby. He really said that. “Getting tattoos is my hobby.” I’m cringing as I write it. My son has six tattoos. I comfort myself by saying that most of them are small (like a few inches in diameter small). But the truth is this drives me crazy. I’m embarrassed that he has the tattoos and embarrassed that they are such a big deal to me.

So how do we accept the choices our children make when they aren’t the choices we would make for them?

I try to focus on more meaningful things like character and values. I know that having a 21-year-old son who is working and learning life’s lessons is not a bad thing. I can name many great decisions he has made and I know he’s a good-hearted, hard-working, honorable person. He treats people nicely and he is a good friend. He is kind, he tells the truth (even when I don’t like what the truth is) and he exhibits more and more maturity every day. He’s even come out and said his Dad and I have been right about some of the life lessons we’ve tried to teach him. He now says that climbing a tree in the rain was not worth breaking his wrist. He’s come through some difficult times, and he’s reached out when he needed support. I am proud of all those things and I know they are more important than getting tattoos and not going to college right now.

Some days I can focus on those positive things and sometimes I still lie awake at night wrestling with my own hopes and ambitions for my son. I guess perhaps I’m still a work in progress, too.