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How my son's first cavity threw me for a loop

I looked inside and there it was: dark and deep, a gaping gray pit.
/ Source: The Associated Press

I looked inside and there it was: dark and deep, a gaping gray pit.

As the dentist spoke, I couldn't process the news. My 8-year-old son had his first cavity, and it's "quite large," he confirmed to this disbelieving mother.

Disbelieving because no hole had been filled in my mouth until the teenage years, when the braces came off to reveal a small bit of decay.

It simply never occurred to me that my son would have cavities, because I didn't. It was irrational, especially since my husband had more childhood cavities than I did. But on that May day in the dentist's office, with SpongeBob blaring on the TV, I felt crushed.

So after my son's tears dried and the cavity was filled, I wanted to understand my reaction, if not avoid a repeat. Turns out I'm not the only parent who gets rattled by a child having problems I somehow avoided.

"The key is not to make assumptions about the child, his abilities or inabilities," says New York psychologist Rochelle Balter. "You need to tell yourself that no matter how good a parenting job you do, there are certain things you cannot control."

Many parents, especially high achievers, are hardwired to believe their offspring will be like them, assume their interests and perform up to their levels, says Balter.

"Many parents see their children as an extension of themselves," Balter said. "We all expect them to share the experiences we had."

And in my sweet boy, I love recognizing my eye color, skin tone and hair texture. I see the shape of my eyebrows and lips. I want him to like the things I enjoyed as a kid.

But Balter reminds us what we all know: children are unique beings.

Teeth aside, my son did get his dad's love of baseball and most other sports. And as the son of two editors, he doesn't let a typo in the morning sports pages go uncorrected. Still, he's not taken with my childhood hobbies of swimming and ice skating and does well in math, not a strength of mine or my husband's.

Skills and abilities come from a combination of genetics and the child's environment, says Dr. Ada Hamosh, a geneticist and pediatrician at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

So while it'd be great if our kids picked up all of our interests and (dental) strengths, it's not always going to happen.

"You can foster an appreciation but it doesn't mean a child will excel at it," Balter says.

In my case, I'm paying extra close attention to his brushing and flossing. But what's a deflated mom or dad to do when their little boy or girl truly chooses a different path?

"The parent's dream gets put on hold," she says. "You have to say, 'I'm not giving up on the first try but I'm not going to force the child to do something the child doesn't like.'"