Raising apples that fall far from the tree

Scribner

Mother Nature must have known what she was doing with genetic inheritance, because parents clearly prefer to raise miniature versions of themselves. But what happens when the apple falls very far from the tree? Can parents still provide the same amount of nurturing and love?

That’s the question writer Andrew Solomon asked in his new best-selling book Far from the Tree. I spoke to him about his interviews with more than 300 families where parents were raising kids with a physical or emotional disability such as deafness, Down syndrome, or autism, or with extreme intellectual gifts that transformed them into prodigies.

I wanted to know what lessons he gleaned from these parents; what sorts of qualities helped them best navigate the differences between themselves and their offspring?

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“It’s all about finding balance,” he told me. “Parents need to recognize their children for who they are but also do everything possible to enable them to become everything they’re supposed to be.”

That's far tougher than it sounds. In interviewing parents of autistic children, Solomon found many struggling to express love for their children even while knowing that their children often couldn’t return the same level of affection. But Solomon spoke with some adult children on the autism spectrum who have come to embrace their different way of relating to the world as a rich part of their identity.

“Acceptance is an important part of the process,” said Solomon, “and of course it helps if parents are kind and loving and secure enough in themselves to see their child as a separate person.”

As a gay man, Solomon found that it’s typically harder for parents to accept differences that they somehow feel blame for—such as criminal behavior, transgender tendencies, or mental illnesses—because they’re sometimes considered by parents to be traits that a child develops more through nurture than nature.

But he also found that parents deal with their child’s differences in similar ways, trying to fix what they can before coming to terms with unchangeable parts of their child’s identity. As a gay man, Solomon wrote that he identified with the plight of children who are born deaf to hearing parents. Just as parents can now fix their child’s deafness with cochlear implant surgery, his own parents “would have gamely consented to a parallel early procedure to ensure that I would be straight,” he wrote.

But parents are perfectly justified in using medical technologies to cure their child’s deafness, Solomon said. “I don’t question any parent’s right to make that decision, but anytime you make a deficit go away, there’s always a loss in some part of the identity even if what you gain is enormous.”

The loneliness that comes with a child being different in some way or other is the flip side of the coin that makes a child unique. Parents raising child prodigies—who play Mozart on the piano at four or graduate high school at 10—find themselves helping their child navigate through the solitary and one-of-a-kind aspects of their worlds just like parents raising dwarfs or transgender children.

“With child prodigies, many parents have to learn not to push so hard that they create a miserable relationship between their child and their child’s skill,” said Solomon. “It’s about helping children to have the happiest and least painful life.” That usually involves trying to find them like-minded friends so they don’t feel as lonely and allowing them to determine how much they want to integrate a particular skill into their identity.

Solomon, who became a father while writing the book, told me he wasn’t scared off by the prospect of parenting after meeting so many families who were struggling to contend with their differences. “This is really a book about incredible resilience of parenthood. If all of these families love all of these children despite all of these challenges, then surely I can love children of my own.”

He learned that the experience of having a child who deviates in some way from a parent’s values or expectations is universal and that parents can develop stronger relationships with their children if they can move past their own disappointment. “Parents often think at first that their child will snap out of it. Sometimes they can, and sometimes they really can’t.” Accepting when they can’t is the secret to having a strong relationship and bridging the differences.