Saturday, April 2, 2011

What Happens When You Try To Change Someone

I have a feeling it's not possible to change someone else. That might seem obvious. People say it out loud all the time. Yet most of us still try. There are many, many people out there writing books and articles about how to get someone to be who you want them to be.

Especially our children. Parenting experts and amateurs alike make us feel like it is our duty as parents to mold our children into some ideal form. Like if we can just train them right, they will be right. People scare us into thinking that if we don't try to train our kids (to be polite, to take orders, to eat right, to sleep right, not to give up, to love reading, to watch the right amount of television, you name it), then we are doing them a great disservice. They will surely grow up to be mindless, selfish, friendless criminals who can't get along in the world.

But what if all the training that you do to your child doesn't change who he is at all? What if it only changes how he feels about who he is? And how he feels about you?

For example, suppose you have a very sensitive child, and you feel it is your job to "toughen him up" so he is better equipped to handle life's difficulties. You might try many different things to teach him lessons about being tough. You might say directly "stop being so sensitive." You might say "you are ok" or "it's not a big deal" when he gets upset. Or you might roll your eyes or laugh when he cries when you don't feel it is appropriate to cry.

Does all of this make your child tougher? I don't know. But it might make him feel like it is wrong to be sensitive. Like there is something wrong with him. And it is likely that at some point he will realize it is not safe to show he is sensitive around you. These two things might add up to him seeming less sensitive, to you, on the outside. But what if nothing has changed on the inside? What if he is just lying or pretending, to you to make you feel better, to get your approval? How does that affect your relationship with him?

What if this happens every time we try to change someone to better fit our vision of who they should be? Think about that the next time you try to train or "fix" your child or even your partner or anyone else. Maybe you are only training him how to act around you, rather than making any significant change within him. Maybe the lesson he learns is that he is not good enough. That it is not safe for him to be himself with you. That he needs to be different to please you. Think about whether or not that is the lesson you intend to teach.

A beautiful arrangement by my daughter, Louise (4).

Has someone ever tried to fix you? To make you be different than who you are? How did that go?


  1. This is a great post. Reminds me of the work of Naomi Aldort and Byron Katie who both advocate 'water the plant don't try to shape the flower.' Also the idea that I've used in my unschooling is that I see my job as a sculptor who works with stone-working to uncover the form that is already there rather than a sculptor who works with clay-molding a preconceived form into a work of art.

  2. Thanks rfs! Glad you enjoyed it. That is a really nice idea of parent-sculptor as "uncoverer" rather than creator. I love seeing what new things my kids have in store for us every day.

  3. This is especially important for me because my son is on the autism spectrum. I do believe it is my job to help him learn certain social skills in order to give him the tools to have satisfying relationships now and in his future. These skills such as eye contact, executive function, theory of mind, etc. don't develop organically like they do in the brains of typical children. That being said, we do therapies that are respectful of who he is and give him space to grow in a way that feels comfortable while still challenging him. It is a fine line to walk, and just writing this I'm realizing I'm walking on the wrong side a lot of the time, so thank you for your post. I want to leave you with a quote that kind of goes along with what you're saying...tell me if you like it. It breaks my heart to read it!
    "This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces."

    -Jim Sinclair

  4. @Katie, That IS a heart-breaking quote... But very true. I'm going to share it on the Facebook page.

    Your son is very lucky to have you! I can't imagine how difficult it is to walk that fine line. I'm glad you liked the post. Thank you for sharing.

  5. So true. I wish people would be more... accepting. It seems so much healthier.

    (Actually, some recent studies are showing that autistic people DO have empathy, some more than neurotypical people. *researching autism because I'm possibly on the spectrum*)

  6. Thanks Lyn. Do you have any links to those studies? I would be interested in reading about that.

  7. Lyn,--I randomly read your comment and have something interesting to add (since you are researching autism) This is a video about a 14 year old autistic girl who learned to type and thus gained the ability to communicate electronically what she could not verbally. It's brilliant.