From time to time I wonder how my children survived this parent.
My kids turned out fine. Better than fine. By any objective assessment, they are superb people — smart, funny, kind, responsible, honest, resourceful, and compassionate. In fact, if I had to draw attention to anything approaching a failing it might be that they are, all three, perhaps a bit too generously compassionate at times.
I can live with that.
Here’s what I know with certainty: All three children were absolutely themselves from the first moment I met them. My wife and I probably had some impact upon their developing character, a somewhat uncertain supposition given the amusement with which my children have observed my attempts to pass on the wisdom I have acquired along life’s bumpy path. My wife is a unfailingly practical person, connected to all those elements that make up what they call the “real world”, whereas I tend to operate in blissful ignorance of how things actually manifest, preferring my own rosy imagined planetary home. They probably picked up something from both of us; we hope it was our best.
Sure, school and friends, fads and fashions occasionally appeared to have influenced them to some slight degree, but each slipped into the assumed persona, found it wanting, and returned to true north almost immediately. Each of the three has differing enthusiasms and quirks, but in terms of character, each is solid in the same way.
Which is a good thing because as a parent I missed some important cues, operated with faulty judgment, and let them down in ways that ought to have darkened their path. I’m not brave enough to describe the worst of my failures, but I know my deformities of character caused collateral damage at significant points in their childhood.
My intention had been to present a list of observations that might inform good parenting, but it has become increasingly clear to me that only one is necessary:
Don’t take things personally.
Yes, parenting is a serious enterprise, and there is no doubt that we invest a great deal of our abilities and our predilections in the raising of our children. The stakes are high, and there’s no escaping the emotional tangle as kids make their way to adulthood. No matter how we try to separate our hopes from theirs, we want what we want for them. Some days we can keep our notions of what their future should bring at bay; some days we don’t do so well.
We’re attached, and that’s a good thing, even when it gets awkward.
But … attachment can bring some fuzziness of perspective. I choose not to document every misstep I have taken as a parent, in part because I’m sure I’m still making them, but there are three that haunt me because in taking a child’s behavior personally, I did damage when they most needed support.
My son and I can laugh about it now, but when he was eight or nine, I took him to the video store (remember those?) to pick any video he wanted. Any video! What a great dad! What a generous and giving dad!
Just pick one, I said. The minutes went by.
Ready to pick one? Ok, let’s just pick one. Hey, we have to move along. Want to pick one? Yo, “tempus fugit”, pick one. What is the matter with you? PICK ONE!
Flawed, self-obsessed fathead that I am, I snapped. I took it personally. Obviously, my rancid wretch of a son had no concept of gratitude. This was not a trip I wanted to take. This was for HIM. My so-called parents never…. When I was a kid …. Come on!
Look, there were tons of family of origin crap not yet resolved that fueled this huff-fest, and it’s part of the reason I knew I had some work to do, but nonetheless, I admit I raged.
Rigid with fury I swept him up, angrily strode to the car, tossed him into his seat, buckled his seat-belt, revved the engine with terminal prejudice, and squealed out of the parking lot. All of that was reprehensible, but I added insult to injury by calling him a name that came to me from the dark side.
How bad was it? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
I think I said “Toe faced vermin”. He maintains that I said “Toad face vermin.”
Either way, I’m ashamed as I write and should be, but the worst was yet to come.
Why had my son not picked his video? Because as a shorter human, his field of vision did not include the family favorite section; all that he could see were the salacious covers of R-Rated videos. Porky’s. Hard Bodies. Revenge of the Nerds.
He was embarrassed, and I took it personally. Thank God my son is made of better stuff than I. There is no way to undo my terrible judgment, but he’s forgiving, moderately amused at my idiocy and my distress.
I failed to recognize depression in two of my children, chiding them for failing to share my excitement for one activity or another. They spent too much time in their room, too much time in bed, too little time chatting with us. I knew that school days had not been particularly joyful, but I had no idea how saddened they were in not having friends, in not being recognized.
They were in pain, and I missed it. I don’t think I ever said, “Get over yourself”, the vermin line still rang in my ears, but that’s what I wanted to shout. “Come on. You have so many advantages in life. So much to be grateful for”, which, as I look back on it, was essentially born of my narcissistic belief that their sadness was somehow a commentary on my worth as a parent. Hadn’t I done enough? Hadn’t I provided enough?
“What am I doing wrong” — about as obtuse and self-absorbed a question as I can recall.
My children were sensitive, intelligent, and often anxious. How did I miss the paralysing effect of anxiety? I am no stranger to social anxiety myself; if I could go through life without having to speak with anyone outside of family on the phone, I’d be delighted. I hate heading into unfamiliar circumstances; I’m terrible at small talk, and uncomfortable in almost any new social setting. I fret and fumble and often wish I could just stay in bed.
But, when my kids did not want to go to a play, or the circus, or the ballgame, or on road trips, when they didn’t want to watch a great tv show, read a great book, of course, I took it personally, frustrated that they missed out on things I was sure would bring them pleasure. They weren’t so sure and told me so, but I didn’t listen to their anxiety; I only saw them miss opportunities I hadn’t had as a child and thought they should grab.
I’m guessing I’m not the only father who fell into parenting with a set of beliefs about the way kids should be, who too frequently felt judged as a parent, who forgot how confusing and uncertain childhood is for much of the time. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in having regrets.
I wish I had been a steadier, more consistently affirming, more readily understanding father. I do. That’s what I can take personally.