I have been to three “graduations” in the past two weeks. My son has had two end-of-the-year parties to mark his completion of another year of early childhood education. Those parties are not really different than the high school graduation party I attended. The conversations always revolve around how far a child has come and how exciting it is for the next step. Parents congratulate themselves for managing the tantrums (for toddlers and teenagers) and nurturing the signs of independence (for toddlers and teenagers).
In the first week of his life, I already had some very clear expectations for my son:
Sexuality: I never had cravings for food when I was pregnant. I craved music sung by Madonna and Cher. I was excited to think I was giving birth to a gay son who could teach his mother how to dress properly for the pear-shape for which he was partially responsible.
Personality: As regular blog readers, you know I have a sharp wit and irreverent attitude. I expect the same from my son, someone who will undoubtedly follow in his mother’s foot-in-mouth approach to life. Jacob began living up to this expectation hours after his birth; he literally was giving the finger to my husband as Jacob nursed.
Career: At four days old, I explained to Jacob that he was not born to a mother who “would let him be whatever he wanted” when he grew up. I was, and still am, an ardent watcher of Deadliest Catch. I told him he was not allowed to be a crab fisherman.
Despite stereotypical therapists’ views, who we are is more complicated than the expectation of our parents.
The Three Pieces That Make Up the Puzzle of Self-Concept
- Part 1: Family of Origin: Both Nature and Nurture factor into who you are groomed to be. Lehman famously outlined personality characteristics of birth order by defining first born children as ambitious, natural leaders, middle children as peacekeepers, and youngest children as free spirits. Combined with a family’s ethnic and religious views for gender and birth order, we start life as a relative cardboard cut-out of a member of the family.
- Part 2: Friends and Community: As we grow up, we enter a larger world where comparisons and contrasts to our upbringing begin. Erikson labelled this struggle identity versus role confusion. There are three ways we moderate our concept of self during this stage.
- Differentiation = “That’s not me!” We test out concepts, feelings, and emotions we have learned from our family of origin against how our friends’ families define these ideas. Rebellion against our own family is necessary at this point in order for us to embrace independent thinking and a strong adherence to values.
- Substitution = “I want to be like him/her.” This is another form of rebellion, rejection. Painful for parents, again, but a necessary part of the process of becoming an individual. This is also where we embrace social changes like accepting same-sex marriage and a black President. By replacing one set of beliefs with another our society becomes more inclusive.
- Integration = “I’m a platypus!” This strange animal is the role model for a healthy self-concept. You have taken who you were raised to be, tweaked it by seeing how others understand the world, and settled on a unique whole.
- Part 3: Current Family: In order to be YOU, the imaginary audience weighs in. Everyone has a heightened perception of people watching and judging each decision they have made throughout their lifetime. Once you are the final judge, the loudest voice in the room, your self-concept is set.
Spark Note Summary
Asking “what do you want to do when you grow up” is never as impactful as “who do you want to be when you grow up.” If I had my way, Jacob would be a proud man who lets the judgment of others, including his over-opinionated mother, run off his back like water off a duck’s back.