Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Search for Identity

It's August again; our students, teachers, and parents have returned, school is in session, and all is as it should be.  Books have been unpacked and handed out; the fall sports teams are practicing and competing against other schools; and the comforting routine of school is back.  (Don't get me wrong --  I love summer as much as anyone, but I also deeply appreciate the purpose and the joy of being back at school.)
As usual, at the start of school every year, those of us adults who work at Bosque have been pleasantly surprised by the difference in our students from when we last saw them in May.  We hear so many comments like, "Did you see how different Colin looks?" or "Wow, did Georgia shoot up!" With amazement, we say to the students, "You look so different," but it's true -- they have changed.

However, it's not just their appearance that is altered.  As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "You can not step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you." So it is with our students, who are not the same people they were when they left us just a couple months ago. They have discovered novel elements of their personalities and have formed new likes and dislikes. They are engaged in an ongoing process of identity formation, and they are discovering that who they are may change from day to day.

I thought of this as I read Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.  In this beautifully written and well-researched tome, Solomon delves into the way that children who differ from their parents learn to self-individuate, and the manner in which these parents can aid in this process to lessen the inevitable conflict and stress. In particular, Solomon studies families that have children coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, and schizophrenia, as well as children who are disabled, prodigies, rape victims, criminals, or transgender.  Solomon explains how children can be caught between two types of identities: those they inherit from their parents, which he calls vertical identity; and those they form with their peers and others like them, which he describes as horizontal identity.  Teens are constantly negotiating between the y axis of vertical identity and x axis of horizontal identity as they attempt to figure out who they are and who they wish to be.

Solomon states in the opening sentence, "There is no such thing as reproduction."  As parents, we engage in the “act of production” and create a child who may resemble us in some ways but is entirely its own being.  How many times have we as parents said about our children, "Where did they get that from?"  Our children reflect us but they also have a light completely their own.  Even though Solomon focuses on children who may be considered exceptional in some way or differ greatly from their parents, what he says in Far From the Tree holds true for all parents.   Children will often differ from their parents; as they search for their horizontal communities, they will grapple with both hanging on to and separating from their vertical identities.

Solomon says toward the end, "I think all love is one-third projection and one-third acceptance and never more than one-third knowledge and insight." As the parents and teachers in the lives of children, we serve as travel guides aiding our children in the creation of their own identities.  While this process may be frightening, ultimately, it may be one of the most important and rewarding things we do.