by EMILY ORTON
I held our first baby for the first time knowing nothing about her except that she was ours, she had soft brown hair, and she was healthy. Then the nurses whisked her away for a bath. Erik sat at my bedside, elbows resting on his knees, hands together. He looked me in the eyes.
“You want to follow her and see her first bath?” I said.
“What if she doesn’t like any of the things that we like?” He asked.
“We’ll love her anyway,” I said.
Every child is a gamble—a perfect stranger at birth. We welcome them into our lives with no guarantees. Erik and I have done this five times. With so much shared genetic material, you would think we’d all be more alike. We have some things in common with our kids, but they are all very different. They have different abilities, different preferences, and different personalities.
Maybe that’s why Karina, our firstborn, says, “There is no such thing as ‘fun for the whole family.’”
Every moment of family life is affected by this chemistry of similarities and differences. Every endeavor has to be coordinated before and analyzed after. And by “endeavor” I mean getting our shoes on and walking out the front door. To me, relationships matter most, so it’s worth it.
Typical Day at the Beach
For example, here’s how a typical day at the beach goes down at our house:
Erik (Dad): Okay everybody; let’s load up for the beach.
Eli (Son): [Stone face.]
Erik: You knew we were going to the beach today, right?
SJ (daughter): You were there when we talked through the plan last night.
Erik: Get your trunks on. We need to get ahead of the traffic.
Eli: [maintains glower until home from the beach]
Belonging vs Fitting In
I recently watched Brené Brown’s new Netflix presentation, A Call to Courage. She said the opposite of belonging is fitting in. Fitting in is adjusting yourself to be acceptable to the group. Belonging is being accepted by the group as you are.
Fitting in will never satisfy our deep human need to belong because the group isn’t embracing who we really are. I want all my kids to know and feel that they belong in our family. Its worth figuring out how to function even when we don’t like the same things.
My first step is recognizing and acknowledging that Eli does not enjoy the beach.
“I noticed that you were glowering and hunched up when we were at the beach.”
I look for a one-on-one opportunity to ask him about it. If I ask while we’re all standing around toweling off or driving home, it may feel more like an inquisition with some why-can’t-you-be-more-like-me judgment from siblings.
· What are some of the things about going to the beach that you don’t enjoy?
· Are there any parts of going to the beach that you like?
· What are some things you like to do as a family?
I can only embrace my son the way he is if I actually know who he is.
I can only embrace my son the way he is if I actually know who he is. What’s going on in his mind and heart? It’s inefficient to imagine and it can be destructive to assume.
Now We’re Talking
I learned that he doesn’t like freckles. He doesn’t like sunscreen. He doesn’t like getting warm or hot. He doesn’t like saltwater in his eyes or mouth. He doesn’t like how it feels when it dries on his skin. He doesn’t want sand getting inside of his drawing case. He also doesn’t want to get in the way of the rest of the family doing something we enjoy.
He likes taking a nap. He enjoys taking photos of us. He likes it when we check in on him. He may even enjoy boogie boarding or paddle boarding if one of his close friends is there, too. He likes it when we stop afterward for a Costco hot dog.
I want to bring balance to the idea of belonging as Brené Brown describes it. A family is not a democracy or even a self-selected group. Erik and I lead our family as benevolent dictators. We love our kids. We want them to explore their interests and cultivate their abilities.
We have family counsels, both informal and formal. Erik and I discuss and incorporate the kids’ feedback. We work towards consensus. We make final decisions based on what we think is best at the time. Sometimes we ask the whole family to support an individual member. Other times we ask an individual to support the family.
In a family, sometimes we have to fit in to function. We’re don’t ask our kids to pretend they are someone they are not. We ask them to choose to accommodate another individual (Give her some space, she’s having a tough day) or the group (Will you sing with us this time?). That’s what families do.
Life’s a Beach
Beach days—and all our days—are more fun when we all give a little.
Ways we try to improve Eli’s experience:
· Have Eli repeat the beach plan back to us, so we know he knows
· Beach umbrella
· Beach chair
· Full-sleeve rash guard
· Long boardshorts
· Sunscreen that doesn’t smell bad and is easy to apply
· Camera for taking pictures
· Water and sometimes a “good” snack
· Occasional Costco hot dog or Mt. Dew afterwards
· Checking in on him
· Appreciating him for watching our bags
· Acknowledging his calm or cheerful demeanor even when it’s not his favorite
· In Hawaii, we go to the beach 3x+/weekly – we ask Eli to come 1x/weekly
· Let his attitude be his choice and choose not to get frustrated
Ways Eli tries to improve his experience:
· Bring a book
· Bring a podcast
· Take a nap
· Invite a friend
· Be involved by taking photos and videos
· Talking to us about our surfing session that he watched
· Recognize this as an act of service that strengthens family bonds
· Compare number of hours spent doing what he likes vs doing what he doesn’t like
· Sometimes get in the water to boogie board or be friendly
· Choose a calm attitude
· Rinse in fresh water
Family dynamics and relationships don’t hinge on one vacation or one activity. We have to put the challenges in context. Outside of those beach trips that Eli finds so annoying, there are lots of times we’re doing things he does enjoy.
I used to read the kids a picture book about a perfectly fair family where every child got the exact same treatment. When a new baby was born, every child had to wear diapers and sleep in a crib. It was exaggerated, but it established a compassionate case against total equality in a family. It didn’t end all complaints of, “That’s not fair” in our house. It did help our kids realize that each child has different needs. And different can be better than equal.
I’ve made similar accommodations for each of my kids. Each one needs to be known, considered, and cared for as individuals in context of the whole family. It’s not always fair in a family. No matter where we are or what we are doing as a family, this is how they know they truly belong.