I have a friend whose parents are very involved in her family’s life. They are helpful and attentive grandparents, and I tell her how lucky she is all the time. Not only are my parents not very active in my kids’ lives now, but I’m having a hard time remembering anything useful about how they parented me and my siblings. I don’t think I’m resentful, really, just indifferent. Do you have thoughts on processing this?
Our parenting style is greatly influenced by our childhood experiences and the parenting we received ourselves – good, bad, or indifferent. It’s healthy and natural to process how you were raised as you determine the kind of parent you want to be. Be reflective and talk with your partner or a friend or mentor who can be objective and kind. What do you remember about interaction with your parents? What gave you joy? What made your relationship stronger? Be honest, too. What made it difficult? Sorting through these things is important, as long as you learn from them and use them constructively in your own family. Very likely, you’ll find there is more to glean from their parenting than you first thought.
In the Wall Street Journal article, “Maybe My Parents Weren’t Really So Bad,” Robbie Shell wrote that she discovered she was allowing her memories of terrible meals and an absent dad to overshadow anything good that came from her upbringing. True, her dad wasn’t there much. But when he was, she jumped in his lap and he listened to her talk about her day. He gave her the attention and the fatherly approval that no one else could. Even though these moments were rare, they built up her sense of self and well-being.
I’ve recently read Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime. While he had some hilarious moments as a child, Noah’s story is full of traumatic experiences, as he was born to a white man and a Black woman just after Apartheid ended in South Africa. The most damaging relationship in his life was with his step-father. Through all the pain and injury and injustice, Trevor’s mom was there, offering strength, intelligence, humor, and unwavering faith. According to Noah, she didn’t do everything right either, but she gave him what he needed to balance the depravity in his life and ultimately become a successful comedian and Emmy Award-winning talk show host.
Here’s an easy place to start: Did your parents have rituals or traditions that have stuck with you? Maybe your mom read to you at night, tucked you in, and said a prayer? Do you follow suit with your own kids? Maybe your dad couldn’t cook anything but pancakes, but those were a hit! Can you teach your children his recipe and thank him for sharing kitchen duties when it wasn’t the norm for dads? When I was growing up, my dad would watch TV in his bedroom to unwind after a hard day. But as soon as I appeared in the doorway, he would click off the sound and turn toward me. I was all his. I felt seen and loved. Because of that small act of kindness, I advise my clients and friends to do the same for our kids: Put your phone away – drop it in a pocket or put it on a shelf – when your child needs you to be present. Your kids will remember and perhaps, thank you someday, too.
Parents are like gardeners, and their family is their garden. Some gardeners are present and watchful. They sow the seeds and water them so they grow. Other gardeners get distracted and forget to pull the weeds. From these gardeners, you may not feel you’ve had the best of care, but a gardener is only human. Try to look at your parents’ parenting through a lens of grace and humor to allow more sun to shine on your own garden.
Photo: George Rudy