Monday, November 20, 2006

Lost your Identity?

The next day, a friend who we respected called us and praised the manner in which we were raising our children: “There are so many theories and how-to books that it can get confusing, but watching the way you empower your children made me realize that’s how we would like to approach it too.” In the case of child rearing, the flattering or incriminating proof of how well you really succeeded comes much later in life. In our case, we had merely observed the way our friends raised their two daughters, and embraced their approach. We are far from being experts in the field of child rearing, but we do follow a couple of simple principles.

1.Children need to be led and directed. We don’t spend time negotiating with and asking the opinions of people who have yet to understand the ways of the world.

2.There are no gray areas or ambiguity with children—they deal with things in black-and-white terms. Once we have told them what our decision is, we give them an appropriate explanation. When our children whine, we try and engage them in solution-based dialogue.

3.Our role as parents is to consistently educate our children in how to survive and thrive in a world dependent on mutual respect.

4.Children have personal identities that need to be respected and nurtured. This means encouraging and supporting their strengths as opposed to forcing them to conform to personal and/or societal standards.

As we sat in the pre-pre-prep school that was designed to ensure our child got a leg-up on the rest of the four-year-olds in terms of his ability to properly enunciate words, we questioned our motives. Shortly thereafter, we pulled him from the program. We decided that subscribing to other people’s standards at such an early age stifled his potential to establish a personal identity.

Personal identity refers to our innate ability to identify our individual likes and dislikes, as well as our wants and needs. In order to embrace our personal identity, we must have the self-confidence to accept the path we have selected, which may not be the path of popular opinion. Our identity is formed early in life from reinforced examples, it directs many of our decision-making processes, and it is intermittently influenced by factors throughout our lives. Yet many of us struggle with this process of learning and self-acceptance. We know of and respect people who are different, or who have made a difference. This respect led us to make the following decisions regarding the way we conduct our own lives.

1. If we choose the easy way as parents and simply do everything for our children, we are taking away our chance to instill the very self-confidence our children need in order to form their personal identities. They will likely always be reliant on someone else to do things for them, and when they need to get on with life in the real world, they will not be adept at coping with challenge. If, as parents, we don’t present a model of individual responsibility, then our children will end up deflecting blame rather than seeking answers from within.

2. The longer each of us neglects to explore and feed our own identity, the greater risk we run of losing sight of it altogether. Eventually, we will arrive at a critical juncture, feeling miserable and forced to take drastic measures to stabilize ourselves. Humans are very adaptable creatures and will find a way to restore homeostasis when necessary.

It has been said that our seemingly endless fascination with reality television and like forms of voyeurism is a direct result of society’s identity decline. People are flocking to be someone else, or to be accepted in the “in crowd,” with the hopes that this will enhance the status of their identity. Those at risk of losing their personal identities speak poorly of others in an attempt to minimize and deflect the realities of their own situations (we are experiencing w-x-y, yet I heard so-and-so was dealing with x-y-z, so really, we aren’t that badly off). But is that really true? With ten years of experience dealing with men and women who are consistently tested at a high level, with their identities firmly linked to being “the best” in the eyes of their peers, we have deduced a couple of things.

1. In a family dynamic defined by a primary wage earner and a primary caregiver, there seems to be a higher incidence of identity loss. This would make sense, as one could not be expected to spend fifteen years (during the second quarter of life) being immersed with one’s children’s issues and still feel satisfied with one’s own personal-identity growth and development. Sooner or later, the caregiver will seek the personal challenges necessary for growth. It is possible that the primary caregiver will become too immersed in the lives of his or her children, and will as a result stifle the children’s ability to develop their own personal identities. This will lead to further disappointment.

2. There seems to be a tipping point at which the primary caregiver or wage earner realizes that the decision to take charge of one’s personal identity stems from one’s own self, and can only be influenced by outside sources to a certain degree. Hence, the individual accepts that in order to serve the needs of everyone, including him- or herself, at the highest level, time must be dedicated to one’s own growth and development. Through the myriad physical challenges and ensuing accomplishments that we have witnessed over the years, we know that this growth is important to each and every one of us. However, we do not suggest that the physical sphere is the only method of renewal. There are many ways to reclaim your personal identity, but all begin with the recognition that you have lost it in the first place. There is nothing right or wrong about such loss, but denying it means ignoring what you have been missing.

As we endorse solution-based thinking, we can finish with some pointers on how to seek, develop or simply renew your personal identity.
1. Ask yourself if you are truly happy where you are. If the answer is yes, continue what you are doing.
2. Write a list of everything you have always wanted to do/enjoy doing.
3. Without an in-your-face attitude, share those things with your family and friends.
4. Research how you could do those things on your own, with your partner, or with your family.
5. Schedule the time to make those things a priority and make sure you gather support for this part of your life.
6. Spend less time doing those things that take you away from doing what you want to do. Don’t waste time justifying your actions.
7. Spend less time with those people who take you away from doing what you want to do (courteously decline).
8. Talk, reflect, and share the stories of what you did and how it you made you feel with those who have supported you.
9. Encourage your family, friends and coworkers to follow the same path of self-fulfillment.
10. Listen attentively to your children, and praise them for following their own path.

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