“It is a wise father that knows his own child.”
—Launcelot, Merchant of Venice, Act II, scene 2
One of the joys of watching children grow is discovering who they are, how they think, what they love, what inspires them. For many parents, though, this is also one of the challenges. A father may wait years for his son to be old enough for a good game of catch, only to discover that the child is afraid of the ball. He may eagerly introduce his daughter to the joys of classical music, but find she has no interest in anything written before her own birth. Children may choose extracurriculars, friends and eventually careers their parents find inexplicable – and, perhaps inevitably, disappointing. One of the oft-reported struggles of parenthood is learning to recognize children for who they are, rather than for whom their parents expected them to be.
In some families, of course, the discrepancies between expectation and reality run far deeper than the way a child chooses to dress or the subjects at which he excels. What if he doesn’t subscribe to his parents’ religion? What if he is gay, or transgendered, or chooses polyamory? What is a CEO or banker to do if his daughter’s most cherished goal is to pack a single suitcase, move to Oregon, drop off the grid and start a sustainable organic chia farm?
When parents take these frustrated expectations in stride and accept their children exactly as they are, it is an act of such beauty that it can sweep the Internet as an item of viral news. Most such stories, of course, never leave the homes in which they happen. But whether parents embrace their offspring’s unexpected sides immediately and thoroughly or need a few years to reconcile themselves, each moment of parental love and recognition and acceptance gives children more strength and courage to be themselves in a world that seldom makes it easy.
For all the resonance the line has today, in context, it is Shakespeare making a joke at his characters’ expense. Not only is Launcelot implying that his blind father, who Launcelot believes would not recognize him even if he were sighted, is a fool, but in fact, Launcelot has the proverb wrong—the original line, by Homer, is “It is a wise child that knows his own father.” The line goes by amid a flurry of nonsense in a scene written for laughs. Nonetheless, this Father’s Day, let’s acknowledge the wisdom hidden in Launcelot’s error and raise a glass to all the fathers wise enough to know, support and embrace their own children – however far from expectation they may grow up to be.