Friday, January 7, 2011

The Inspirational Family Member and the "Odd Child"

Recently I read an article in the Globe and Mail (Canada's centre right, intellectual, "national" newspaper) on "The Transformational Canadians", and more particularly on whom the 25 so designated would nominate in turn as Transformational Canadians. I was particularly struck by Former Prime Minister, and Transformational Canadian Paul Martin's accounting of who is transformational and why.  His contribution follows immediately below, and my commentary afterward.

I am particularly interested in readers' views on Paul Martin's and my ideas, and their own inspirational figures--who qualifies as such and why, and who has been inspirational to them in their life.

The inspirational guardian

Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Paul Martin
The Right Honourable Paul Martin names his Transformational Canadian:

"One of our programs in the schools is what we call the Youth Entrepreneurship Program. It's a program teaching young aboriginals how to start a business. We go into marketing and accounting, basically because it's important for them to understand how you start a business and how you become an entrepreneur. But also, it's been proven that there's a greater chance that they will stay in school and graduate if they can see a concrete reason for doing so.

"When we opened up in Scott Collegiate in Regina, we did a roundtable with a bunch of students and the teachers and various people from the community. And if you ask any young person when they're in high school, 'What do you want to do?,' most of them will tell you they don't know. But aboriginal kids - they come with a number of problems. The high school dropout rate is three times, four times what it is for non-aboriginal kids. It's huge, right?

"And so I went around the room with about 20 of the students saying, 'What do you want to do?' And a lot of them didn't know, and they weren't sure whether they wanted to graduate from high school. And some of them had very good answers, some of them didn't, but it was obviously an issue. And these are kids who, in some cases, had been through a lot.

"And then all of sudden, one young student said, 'I want to be a nuclear physicist.' And I was really taken aback. This was quite a different answer than anything I had gotten. And I looked over and I caught the eye of the principal, who nodded as if to say, 'This student is going to make it.'

"And I said to him, 'Why?' And he said, 'Because my aunt told me I can do anything I want, as long as I graduate from high school and go to university. And this is what I want to do, and my aunt has kept at me.'

"So I then said to him, 'That's wonderful - do you have brothers and sisters?' And he said yes. And I said, 'What do they want to do?' And he said, 'Well, I don't know. They don't know what they want to do and where they're going to go.'

"And I said, 'Well, how come?' And he said to me, 'Because they're being raised by different aunts.'

"And that really struck me. So if you were to say to me, 'Who is the most transformational person I know?,' I never met that aunt. But for me, she represents all those mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and grandfathers and grandmothers who are raising young aboriginal students, and who are encouraging them to go to school and to graduate. And I don't think there is anything more important."


I would second Paul Martin's nomination, and add that an inspirational family member, or someone "like a family member" is important to the success and fulfilment of all children. Along with the particular vulnerabilities of aboriginal (First Nations Native Indian Canadians, and Inuit), I would add the vulnerability of the "odd child". Every family seems to have one--or more--and some families handle their "odd child" better than do others. When the nuclear family is particularly at odds with the "odd child" the importance of extended family members and significant "like family" friends, teachers, coaches, religious figures, etc becomes even more important.

I put "odd child" in quotations marks because often the only thing odd about the child is that they are different in some way than most of their family members, the family ethos, or the modus vivendi of the family. More than being truly odd in a pathological sense, these children seem to be a poor fit with the family they were born into. In the worst situations they seem to have nothing in common with their biological nuclear family, are misunderstood by them, scapegoated, bullied, or have their spirit crushed in some way. Sometimes they are the sensitive child, or the one caught in the middle, who bears the psychological burdens of a dysfunctional family. They may be the one who comes to medical, psychological, or psychiatric attention as the "identified patient", whereas a family assessment reveals they are often the most functional of the family, and/or the family's "designated patient".

Most often, the person is supported by a family who doesn't quite understand them, and may find more identification with an extended family member, a family friend, or a mentor from another sphere in their lives. Most often their "oddity" is around certain traits, interests, or ambitions that make them different than the others, while still having enough in common not to feel or be alienated.

Some of my most successful and gratifying times as a psychotherapist have been to validate a child's, adolescent's, or adult's "oddity" as normal and admirable. Other times, it is to help a patient realize that an "odd" sibling or other relative is not so odd after all. The latter is one of the ways in which individual psychotherapy has an impact beyond the individual in the therapy setting as their new insights impact their relationships with others, and the others in turn.

Some of the odditiess of patients or their families, that I have encountered:

-the loud-voiced one in a quiet-voiced family
-the only lawyer in a family of physicians
-the only aspiring writer in a family of accountants
-the imaginative one in a family of concrete thinkers
-the skilled tradesman in a family of old-moneyed, upper middle class professionals
-the only classical musician in a working class family
-the only academic in a family of entrepreneurs
-gay and single among the heterosexual married with large numbers of children
-emotional in a family of stoics
-the non-talker in a family of chatterers
-the introvert among extroverts
-the shy, privacy loving one in a family of politicians

In my own family of origin, my sister seemed to occupy the place of the "odd child"-different interests, different sense of humour, more sensitive, more extroverted--as children, but I do believe that through diligent persistence over time, I have "won" in the "oddities" competition. My oddities include but not are not limited to: living overseas and thinking there are other countries than Canada in which one can make a nice (dare one say better?) life; interest in international affairs; collection of advanced academic degrees; decorating style (they think it looks good, but can't imagine how I thought it up); creative cooking also called "Chiara's concoctions" by the less culinary adventuresome; preferring urban to suburban life; disliking driving; willingness to live in a rental apartment; etc.

My family are loving and supportive, despite my oddities, and I have had various extended family member inspiration/support from aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents for these oddities, and of course from chosen friends and mentors. The hub shares some of my oddities, and alas, agrees with the home front on others. No matter, I find sympatico members among the "oddities" in his family too! :D

As an aunt. I try to be inspirational to and supportive of my nephew, developing his ability to tolerate difference (mine), and by modeling other acceptable interests and activities than those which predominate in his home. In doing so, I provide opportunities for him to master that expression that all men must learn to cultivate and refine if they are to have successful interpersonal interactions. The overt expression is pleasantly quizzical, open-minded, listening, reserving judgment. The undertones are: "What is that woman on about (now, again, still...), and how do I shut this down?" The undertones are important so that the woman knows whether 'tis best to cease and desist, or to gear up for battle.

My favourite and most recent exchange of this nature, went as follows:

Nephew: I had a really good game in goal today!
Me: Yes, you did! You should play for your school ice hockey team when you go to high school [Grade 9, he is now in Grade 6]. Oh, and then I will come and join your high school's cheer leading squad and cheer for you!
Nephew: adopting appropriate face as described above, You wouldn't, would you...?
Me: Of course! It would be fun! And I could get pom poms!
Nephew: looking skeptical but not sure because high school is still a mysterious world away, don't know how...
Me: Yes I do! imitating the claps, stamps, and star jumps while chanting, "Let's go, let's go, let's reeeaaallly go! Let's fight, let's fight, let's reeeaaallly fight! Let's win, let's win, let's reeeaaallly win! Go! Fight! Win! Yaaaaaay, team!
Nephew: face relaxing because 1) he has realized I am teasing, 2) he has chosen to believe I'm teasing, or most likely 3) he has decided that should he reach Grade 9 and I am still proposing such nonsense he will tell his mother on me and she will fix it Yeah, right, whatever... and walks off

I do think that this phenomenon of the importance of an inspirational, supportive family member, is universal. In more traditional cultures, with more strict norms, this phenomenon may be more pronounced. Fortunately traditional extended families also have more family members from whom to choose a kindred spirit.

Do Paul Martin's or my ideas resonate with you? How?
Do you find any of them "odd"? Elaborate!
Who among your family members has inspired/supported you in aspects of yourself that are different than your parents' ideas, or unusual among your siblings?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

1 comment:

Susanne said...

I enjoyed the article - yay for aunts who inspire (and learn to cheer in your case..ha, ha!) I love that this aunt has given hope to the child in her care!

There is a Bible verse my preacher often uses: something like "Life and death are in the power of the tongue: choose life." He teaches us that every day we can build up (give life) or tear down (give death) by what we say to people. That old "sticks and stones" jingle is wrong because words DO hurt.

I think my befriending Arabs, Muslims *and* going 6000 miles to meet some guy I met on the Internet has put me solidly in the "odd child" category. Thankfully I feel loved (if not always understood) in spite of these things. :)

I love how you personalized this post and adored the reaction of your nephew to the thought of your promise to cheer for him in three more years! Haaaa! Yeah, that'll really encourage him to try out for the team! :-P


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