Shepherd, Don’t Shape
For the past week I’ve been thinking about a Kahlil Gibran poem that really captures the essential dilemma of being a parent: the desire to shape our children into the type of people we think they should be, versus the desire to guide them toward finding their authentic self. Gibran’s poem is so remarkable that I thought it worthwhile to reproduce it here:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
As parents, the moment our children are born our lives are transformed. We are no longer defined by our relationship as children of our own parents. Instead, we are plunged headlong into a totally new reality as parents of these creatures, our children, who themselves are new to this world. It’s an overwhelming shift in the balance of our lives.
Over time, our sense of obligation, responsibility, and concern causes us to believe that we must prepare them for a hostile and difficult world, for one day we will be gone, and they will be left to navigate it alone. We must not merely clothe, feed and provide them shelter. We also have to nurture their intellect, curiosity, and moral development. So far so good.
But what I’ve found is, all too commonly, a sense of frustration. Not about being a parent, but rather about being a good parent. I sense that I am falling short of these goals when somehow dinner descends into chaos or bedtime becomes a test of wills conducted at a shout. If curated lives offered on Facebook and Instagram are even remotely truthful, my friends seem to have succeeded wildly where I have failed. However, once I talk with these parents, I find out that we’re all much more alike in our struggles then we want to admit.
But this is where Gibran’s poem comes in, almost like a reset button with such a bold pronouncement at the outset. For him to say “your children are not your children” is to pour a bucket of ice water onto the head of a parent. It seems as though it’s the most demonstrably false statement possible. Almost, unthinkable.
But I think the poem, at its core, reminds us that parenting is about shepherding, not shaping. Our goal is not to make a reproduced version of ourselves. Rather, parenting is about getting to know someone whom you had the fortunate hand in creating for some mystical and unknowable reason. Does this mean we have “no say” in what our children do or how they behave? No, that’s not correct. We are responsible for them. But that responsibility does not make our children into us. They are authentically different human beings.
As I said, I spent a substantial part of the last week reading and re-reading this poem at various times spent with my daughters. I thought about it as I watched them run the football pitches, or laugh and jump during a swim, or ride their bikes in a race with one another. A new-found calmness came over me, really, a sense of relief. These little people are unique individuals, and I’ll have done my job as a parent if I nurture that individuality and respect it for what it is, not what I think I want it to be.
The last lines are so important in explaining how the interaction should be: you, the parent should try to be like your child! I read this to mean, you can embrace their wonder, silliness, inquisitiveness, passion and curiosity; find a new sense of yourself along the way. You can learn new things about your own identity as you embrace your parental role.
Armed with this new perspective, I see that most of my frustration comes from a desire to control what my children are doing (or, in the longer term, becoming). Perhaps I am hoping to make up for my own shortcomings while doing what I think is in their best interest, but really it’s probably more about me. This is a flawed approach that is doomed to make everyone unhappy.
The poem offers a simple reminder: children should be understood on their own terms as truly unique creatures. Our role as parents is truly that of a guide and caretaker, not an owner or creator. To me, this view doesn’t diminish the role of the parent. On the contrary, it lends it so much more nobility and selflessness because it removes our own ego from the relationship and places this ultimately strange and amazing relationship into the proper context.