Far From the Tree

Sep 5, 2013

Recently I wrote about children seeming to absorb by osmosis the characteristics of their families during the years of growing up.  But a new book explores the other possibility: Children sometimes turn out very differently from their parents.  In his book Far from the Tree, psychiatrist Andrew Solomon shares stories of hundreds of families whose children have very different lives from their parents.

This 1000-page tome conveys the voices of parents coping with children who experience deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, and multiple severe disabilities. He also interviewed parents with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who have become criminals, and who are transgendered. 

When two people decide to become parents, they assume their child will be a younger version of themselves in some predictable combination.  This assumption is often faulty, according to Solomon. “There is no such thing as reproduction,” he says. This notion “is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads.”

Solomon points out that because parents and children share genes, there will certainly be some shared traits between them.  But some children acquire a trait that is foreign to their parents, leading them to acquire an identity with others from that peer group. 

For example, a deaf child born to hearing parents may have very loving relationships with his hearing parents, but discover he really “belongs” when he finds other people with deafness.

Solomon  describes families not only learning to deal with their exceptional children but also finding meaning in doing so.  Recognizing that there is “no other optimism so great as having a child,” Solomon marvels at parents who move from disappointment, to acceptance, and finally to fulfillment in supporting children who are different from themselves.

The prospect of producing a “mini-me” is a pleasant (if somewhat narcissistic) possibility. We may expect similarities in our offspring, but cloning is for sheep. When we embark on the path to parenthood, we make a commitment to love whoever it is our children turn out to be.