This Peculiar Stranger

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

A decade ago psychologist James Hillman theorized that children come into this world with much more agency than we tend to admit. Parents undoubtedly have influence, but Hillman argues that too many mothers and fathers embrace the “parental fallacy” that they can and should determine the life paths of their offspring. He encourages parents to abandon this false sense of control and to welcome instead “this peculiar stranger who has landed in their midst.” Khalil Gibran spoke to this centuries earlier when he wrote that children “come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you they belong not to you.”

These are welcome words to me. I feel immense pressure to father well, in part because my own father left our home when I was nine. This works fine when Rio is being himself in a way that is conducive to what we want. But when his exuberance runs counter to society’s norms or even my own plans for the day, I can become deeply demoralized, partially because I subconsciously translate this as a failure on my part. Hillman reminds me that my role as Rio’s father is critical but also limited, and that to expect that I can mold him into doing just what we (the family; the neighborhood; the school; society) want is tantamount to fighting an immense force of nature.

The challenge, then, is to guide Rio into well-roundedness without snipping off his characteristic edges, and to not lose my sanity in the process. On a bad day, I hover too close, micromanaging Rio in the name of steering him in good directions — it’s like I’m wearing a special pair of glasses that magnifies every little bit of Rio I want to change. On better days, I take a more sanguine view of the situation, giving Rio the room to be himself and intervening only if he commits a serious infraction. In these moments, I’m able to relieve myself of the self-imposed “master parent” role and see Rio the same way I might view a friend’s child — delighting in the big picture of him in spite of the messy details.

In Hillman’s mind at least, a laissez-faire approach is advisable, not only for parents’ serenity but also for practical reasons: he believes all the prostrations and interventions may actually end up doing little to change the route of the ship. It’s not that he’s encouraging people to give up conscious parenting, but he is inviting us to surrender the narcissistic notion that we can make our children what we want them to be through some perfect concoction of coercion, incentive, and sweet talk. “Instead of saying, ‘This is my child,’” Hillman writes, “parents must ask, ‘Who is this child who happens to be mine?’”

I saw this in action the other day when Annie, Rio, and I were in Jackson Square in New Orleans. Rio had been a bundle of contrariness all day, his active nature exploding in all the wrong directions. Then he started chasing pigeons. Normally this doesn’t bother me much, but there were so many pigeons that their fluttering made a street vendor look over with what I perceived as irritation. I told Rio to stop; he kept doing it. Just as I got ready to trot out the hard line, his focus suddenly shifted to the very vendor I had noticed before. He walked over to her and asked, “What are you doing?” She explained that she was a fortune teller. He was fascinated, asking her about her tarot cards and the rocks and crystals scattered across her table. She told him he could pick out one of the rocks to keep. Rio proceeded to examine each rock closely, holding it up to the sun and inspecting the light it refracted onto his palm. “I want to pick the one with just the right color,” he told me.

The psychic looked at me and asked, “What are you doing about his talents? Because I see a singer, or a performer of some kind. He will challenge you, but you’ve got to give him room for his gusto.”

As Rio carefully appraised each rock, I thought about what she said. Talent. Gusto. Challenge. Room. So much is out of my purview. Rio finally decided on a mauve stone, and we thanked the woman. Within minutes he was spinning and tossing it on the cobblestone street in some elaborate game he had concocted. Seconds later, he threw the rock a little too hard, and it broke. I didn’t say much, believing the vagaries of his particular zeal will be more his struggle than mine.