The Dance

The birth of my daughter, Micaela, fifteen years ago changed the way I viewed parenting. Years of training had led me to believe that children were malleable, ready for parents to shape into social, satisfied human beings. The occasion of Micaela's birth was particularly joyous. It had taken two years for Hildy to become pregnant, and we (mostly my wife) had suffered through the usual pain and indignities of infertility, with doctor's visits, a laparoscopy, daily basal temperature taking, sperm counts, etc. Time was running out. Hildy was in her late thirties, and with every month that passed, and every menstrual period, our chances of success lessened. But suddenly our mysterious failures became an inexplicable success—and nine months later Ronny Marcus, Hildy's obstetrician and research colleague, was holding the newborn in Boston's Beth Israel Hospital, joking about placentas in his South African lilt, while I videotaped the magical, daybreak scene.

In the middle of this sleep-deprived giddiness, Micaela, whose eyes had been wandering lazily around the hospital room, suddenly looked towards me and smiled. Not the full smile of a three month old—the muscles of her mouth did not seem to permit this. Instead, it was the most rudimentary of smiles, the widening of the mouth and the slight spreading of the lips, but a smile just the same. Ronny, of course, noticed too.

That precocious smile resulted in the closest thing to an epiphany that I have ever experienced. There was far more "person" inside Micaela, even at 30 minutes of age, than I ever would have imagined. It was as if she said "By the way, I'm here, happy--and my own self." The notion that I was going to "build" her suddenly seemed far-fetched. She was, in large part, already there. I was no more going to be able to change her essence than she was mine. And even if I could, why would I want to?

The notion that babies arrive as blank slates, popular over the last few decades, has been damaging. In our efforts to "build" children from scratch, we have neglected the fact that much of our children, perhaps even 50%, is wired in by Mother Nature. To parent, without considering who our children are and what is built in, predisposes our children to the condition I call "voicelessness," where a child's essence is neither seen nor heard. Parents do matter, but it is more accurate and healthy to look at the parent-child relationship as a dance. Can you recognize, attend, value, and respond to your particular partner's moves? Can your partner respond to your moves? Do both parties feel good about themselves as dance partners—in terms of their individual skills and their interaction?


Sometimes this is not possible. There are children who are difficult and inattentive by nature—no parent could dance well with them. Parents must not blame themselves for these situations. But there are also parents who feel they must control the dance, dragging their partner with them, neglecting their partner's moves entirely, or forcing their partner to only make moves that reflect well on them. Automatically, their child feels like a lousy dancer.

A child who feels they are a lousy dancer has low self-esteem. Their moves are not worth seeing, and they have absolutely no control over what occurs on the dance floor. They merely take up space, and often wonder what point this serves. "What is the purpose of my life? Why don't you send me back and find someone you like better?" they ask. Some spend a lifetime trying to perfect the right moves so the dance will work. Others become so self-conscious, they can barely lift a foot, turn a hip, or swing an arm. They never understand that the cause of their paralysis is not their own inability but the unresponsiveness of their partner. Still other children focus entirely on themselves and, out of self-protection, neglect the moves of everyone around them--such is the genesis of narcissism. In all cases, the door to anxiety and depression springs wide open—the sense of being a lousy dancers lasts a lifetime, and, for reasons I will explain in future essays, often dramatically affects relationship choices.

There is no one way to dance--or to parent--because there are no generic children. Every child is different, and deserves to be seen, heard, and responded to in their own unique way. In the article "Giving Your Child Voice," I suggest a method of doing this.

Micaela (even at 15) is a wonderful person, but I did not make her this way. She and I danced well (Hildy is also a terrific dancer--even better than I), and through these dances Micaela learned about the special qualities that were always her potential. To inoculate your child against depression and to build self-esteem, it is most important you continuously discover who your particular child is and learn to dance with him or her. Sometimes you will lead, and sometimes you will follow. This is fine. It is not just what you do as a parent that matters, it is what both of you do.

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

next: Do Parents Matter?

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, October 26). The Dance, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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