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If you're like us, you're interested in the new parenting book that everyone is talking about, but no one seems to have finished. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity is a whopping 702 pages, so it's hardly surprising that a lot parents haven't slogged through it, but since The New York Times recently picked it as one of The 10 Best Books of 2012, we wanted a cheat sheet.
Author Andrew Solomon spent 10 years interviewing more than 300 families with children who have been diagnosed with deafness, autism, Down syndrome, dwarfism, schizophrenia, or severe multiple disabilities. Some of these parents are raising transgender children, some are raising children born of rape. But the stories of these families offer advice that can benefit any type of family. Here are five things we learned from Far From the Tree:
Consider changing how you view people with differences. Solomon makes the case that we often look at individuals with conditions such as dwarfism or disabilities and categorize their conditions as "illnesses." We feel empathy for the blind person we see on the street and for the adult with Down syndrome who bags our groceries -- but perhaps we should look at this as part of their "identity" instead. Not something that's wrong or a deficit, but as one attribute of who they are. If you adopt this outlook, does that change the way you interact with this person?
Watch how you judge their parents. We like to put labels on people and on situations -- "That child is autistic because of X," or "That child acts out in school because of Y" -- so we can hold that situation at a distance from our own lives, as if to say, This could never happen to me because I don't do X or Y. Solomon shares stories (particularly in the chapter of parents of criminals) that demonstrate how quick we are to pass judgment on others, and how those parents are deserving of our compassion, even if we cannot offer our understanding.
Ask yourself how you see your child's differences. As parents, we want our kids to be happy, and we often believe that the pathway to happiness lies in making sure our kids fit the norm. If they're somehow different, we often feel compelled to try to fix that difference. When a child is born with a hearing loss, we look for medical interventions to help her hear. Too short? We consider growth hormone injections. Gay? We wish for him to be straight. Solomon points out that we feel that our kids' truest path to happiness is if they are "more like ourselves." He also explores the question: How is a parent to know whether to correct or celebrate a given characteristic? There's no one answer to this question, says Solomon, but seeking out a community of other parents facing similar challenges can help.
Try to see your child's individuality in a "neutral" light. Solomon tells the story of a blind adult, Deborah Kent. Kent's own feeling is that her blindness is a "neutral attribute" for her -- just like her hair color. But when she became pregnant, she was astonished to find out that her husband and even her own mother were fearful that her unborn baby would also be blind. For Kent, blindness is part of her identity, but for her husband and mother, it is an illness -- it had never become "neutral" for them. Even after her mother raised a blind child to be confident and hopeful and after her husband married her as blind woman, they each still fervently wished that this condition would not happen to the baby.
Parents of "different" children have a lot in common. Far From the Tree makes the case that whether you're parenting a child with Down syndrome, a child prodigy or even a transgender child, it's the experience of parenting a child who is different from yourself that is similar, regardless of what the difference is. The journey from grief to denial to acceptance and love is one that all parents of different children take -- and while not everyone ends up in the same place, embodying unconditional love and acceptance, we can certainly learn from parents who have traveled this road.
iVoice correspondent Sharon Rowley is the Mom to six kids ages 6 to 12. She blogs daily at Momof6 and you can find her on twitter @sharonmomof6