Eleven years ago, Claude Knobler and his wife, who had two children, decided to adopt a 5-year-old boy from Ethiopia. In More Love, Less Panic: 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia, Knobler explains how his struggle to turn the wild, silly, loud and “too optimistic” Nati into a quiet, neurotic Jew like himself forever changed the way he approached parenting.
Daniela and Lucy Weil (left) and Claude and Nati Knobler (right). Photos © Erik Zanker and Claude Knobler.
I have an adopted daughter from Ethiopia, too. She’s 8 and very much like Nati. She is loud, outgoing, silly, fearless and chronically happy. I sometimes try to tone her down, but, like you, I think I might be turning her into a “neurotic Jew.”
It's funny. I think with every kid you learn that they are who they are. It's just that when you adopt a child, you learn it a bit quicker. Our son Clay was exactly who he is from the day he was born, but it wasn't until we had our second child, our daughter Grace, that we really started to see that you can parent all you want, but your kids have their own personalities from day one.
Then . . . we adopted Nati, who was exuberant and giddy and silly, and we really realized that no matter what we did in the name of parenting, he was going to be exactly who he was going to be no matter what we did. There was just no way we could turn this silly Ethiopian 5-year-old who loved shouting and practical jokes into a young Woody Allen—which really makes parenting easier. Because you can just enjoy them for who they already are without worrying about whom you want to turn them into.
You can have long arguments with a toddler about how important it is for them to share their cookies, or you can get in the habit of being a generous, decent person in front of them.
The first lesson you learned is how it's better to influence, than to control. Let's talk about control.
Or about not having any! My wife and I were sent all these videotapes with 10-second snippets of kids saying their names. We had no idea how you could actually choose a child. And then we got this tiny photo of a little boy, and when we saw him on a video, we all just knew. Even when we were in charge, we had no more control than we did with our first two kids! The way we were given to go about “choosing” Nati was strange, but it really also was a good way to start seeing how little control we had.
As parents, it's so easy to make yourself and your child miserable “for their own good,” when really trying to control my kids is often just my way of dealing with the anxiety every parent feels. We love our kids so much that we can't help but be afraid about so many things in their lives. You can have long arguments with a toddler about how important it is for them to share their cookies, or you can get in the habit of being a generous, decent person in front of them. Most kids grow out of the worst kinds of selfishness on their own with time. Yelling at them and arguing with them won't make them better people. But they do watch what you do. Being able to let go of the idea that you can create a perfect child by being a perfect parent really can make your life and your child's life much gentler and happier.
I think when you're a biological parent, perhaps you have more expectations that your kid will become some version of you. Like they'll play the piano if you're a musician. When you adopt, I think you accept from the get-go that this child will be what he/she will be. For me, it's been clear that I cannot hold onto my expectations of who she will become. Maybe she will never go to college. Maybe she's going to end up being a mountain climber, or in one of those jackass videos (the Jewish mother's nightmare). But I've made my peace with that.
Yes! I think that's true, but again, I think that while adoption can speed it up, that's the process that every parent goes through. Talk to any parent of two children and before long they'll tell you how their second child had a personality of its own as soon as it was born. Really what I learned with Nati was that I didn't want any specific thing for any of my three kids. I just want them to be happy—though I do hope your daughter doesn't become a mountain climber or appears in a "Jackass" video. But only because mountain climbing scares me. As do "Jackass" videos.
Oh trust me, it scares the heck out of me too. I have a terrible phobia of heights, and she's a fearless climber. But I never wanted her to inherit my fears, so when she was little, I’d pretend I was totally OK with the crazy stuff she was doing in the playground. The other parents would walk up to me and say "Excuse me, do you think it's OK for your kid to be on the roof of the castle?"
But it was OK for her. Better to let your daughter climb than to shout at her because you're worried she'll fall off a mountain three decades from now. She didn't fall off that castle did she? Because if she did, I'm going to have to re-write my book.
In your book, you talk a lot about nature versus nurture, and it seems like nature is the overwhelming force that shapes a child. Do you see the nurture element in Nati's personality?
That's such a great question. I do think that kids are like watching those old Polaroid pictures after they come out of the camera. The image is already there; you just have to wait for it to come into focus. That said, I don't think we changed who Nati was, but I do think that the cumulative effect of the life we've led has changed and shifted him. I haven't parented Nati into being more mature, but the traveling we've done, the conversations we've had and most of all, being a member of this family and seeing how we share our lives has, I know, helped him grow into the remarkable young man he's become.
The most helpful part of your book to me was the image of Nati's biological mom, who was dying of AIDS, whispering in his ear a final goodbye which you witnessed before leaving Ethiopia. It reminds me to let go.
I'm sure it goes without saying that being with Nati while his mother said goodbye to him was one of the most powerful experiences I'll ever have. It certainly made clear to me that there can be a purity to love. In our daily lives, love can come out in so many strange ways. I nag my kids because I love them. I worry about my family because of the love I feel for them. But at that moment, Nati's mother wasn't telling him anything for his future, or trying to teach him anything, she was just being with him, connecting with him and loving him as purely as anyone ever could. And yet, I do think it's important to remember that you can't always live in that kind of moment. If you never lose your temper with your kids, then you're probably not spending enough time with them. I think, for me, it's important to allow myself to feel all of it; the love, the frustrations, the fears without believing what those feelings sometimes tell me. It's OK to feel frustrated with your child's behavior without believing that voice that says, “How will she ever get a job as an adult when she'll always be this way?” It's possible to love your child with every fiber of your being and still step back and let them live their own lives as they mature.
A lot of what you say reminds me of the serenity prayer (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference).
I did waste a lot of time as a parent trying to change what couldn't be changed and didn't need to be changed. I have a son in college now and once that happens you really do learn that while you think your kids are the entire book of your life, they're really just a chapter. They grow up and get their own lives, no matter how great a parent you are. And if you don't stop and enjoy all of their insanity and strangeness, then you've missed something wonderful. More love, less panic, because either way, whether you spend these years laughing or crying, they're going to be who they are and then they're going to go out into the world.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of this book.
Daniela Weil was born and raised in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and now lives in Houston with her daughter Lucy. Trained as a whale biologist, Weil is also a writer and illustrator whose work includes both children’s books and scientific illustrations. She is the creator of the web comic The World According to Lucy, which chronicles the experiences of an introverted adoptive mom parenting the fearless, free-spirited Lucy.