Originally published November 2013
I could start a small library with the number of parenting books I have in my house (“have,” not “read”—I found I just couldn’t take advice from Marilu Henner.)
Of the small mountain of books and their authors, just a few have stood out and remain deeply ingrained—Dr. Mel Levine, Brene Brown, Ph.D., and now Andrew Solomon.
I was late to the game with Solomon’s “Far from the Tree,” a runaway bestseller for a year when I met him Wednesday night at a Family Action Network event. (By the way, if you live in Chicago or its northern ‘burbs and you haven’t been to a FAN event, you need to get to one. One of the best speaker lineups ever.) But the message is evergreen—accepting your children for who and what they are is key. And if you as a parent find yourself asking, “How do I fix my kid,” you should probably be asking yourself “Should I?” first.
In his book, Solomon posits that there are both “vertical” and “horizontal” identities. Vertical identities are those we inherit from our family—things like our ethnicity, hair color, and last name. Horizontal identities are those established outside of the family norm—everything from health issues not already established—like a deaf child of hearing parents, or perhaps sexuality—being the gay child in a straight family.
Solomon has spoken widely about his research, which began with an assignment to delve into “deaf culture.” His talk, “Love, No Matter What” is a TED favorite and and it was the theme in Winnetka this week when he was in town to share with the Family Action Network (FAN) audience.
Given the exceptional age in which we live, and the means with which we are surrounded, Solomon’s question, “What do validate in our children and what do we cure in them?” is one parents need to consider carefully. Does a parent pursue every medical and occupational remedy for a profoundly challenged or different child, or does he or she work toward acceptance of a disability or difference?
“We have to celebrate children for the way they are,” says Solomon. He’s careful to say this does not mean we don’t do anything to help our children. “If a fix works quickly and is easy, it’s fine,” he says. But trying to change something inherent to their being—such as an intellectual disability or different sexuality—and “you’ve done something catastrophic.”
Solomon speaks of three levels of acceptance when it comes to horizontal identities—acceptance of self, familial acceptance, and finally, social acceptance. When asked if one level is more difficult to achieve than others, Solomon says the three are intertwined and at the same time, mutually exclusive.
“I think all three have such a profound influence on one another,” he says, explaining there are people with incredible self-confidence with families that can’t accept them, just as there are those with incredible familial support that can’t accept their identities. “They all feed one another.”
The success of “Far from the Tree” means that Solomon now is deluged with advice—especially from parents looking for an answer to “Should I and how can I fix my child?”
“I do get asked that all the time,” he says, explaining he often prefaces his answer with a disclaimer. “I can’t tell you what’s right … It’s clear that you love your child. It’s not clear you accept your child.” Find acceptance, he says, and the quality of your relationship improves.
As parents discover it’s time to accept a child’s horizontal identities, there’s no time for guilt about past, misguided attempts to help “fix” a difference. Harm doesn’t have to be permanent.
“I don’t think it’s irreparable,” he says “You can undo the damage and build a mature and loving relationship.”
And remember—validating, accepting and even celebrating differences—those horizontal identities—is a process that takes more than a moment.
“Love is unconditional,” says Solomon. “Acceptance is something that takes time. It always takes time.
And that, for me, reframes the entire concept of the Christmas miracle. I know what I’m asking for. Do you?