As you know I received a copy of Renegades. Born In The USA, a dialogue between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen on numerous subjects spanning from music (obviously), to politics, the state of America and, as I read yesterday, the influence and effect on our lives of our parents. In the case of Obama and Springsteen particularly their father’s. The conversation is frank with a fair amount of introspection and you’re never going to come away from this without questioning your own upbringing or performance as a parent.
For me, who has long thought I could have done better as a parent and seen parenthood as exposing many of my failings as a person, particularly selfishness I had known was there, this was a thought provoking read. Hindsight and retrospect can be tough informants. And then there’s “If I’d have known then what I know now…”. Say no more.
In some way we are all moulded by the actions of our own parents, supposedly our foremost role models, and that can be both positive and negative in its nature. For a long while we know no different, are not ready to question and in most ways dependant on them. It is they who introduce us to many aspects of the world and provide the initial instruction on how we should behaviour in a myriad of different situations be that in direct dialogue or, more powerfully, by a modelling of behaviours.
But think, if that is how we learn to interact with the world, how did they learn? One has to suppose it was from their parents and so on down the generational line. So we get one bad role model or one exceptionally good one and the learning curve is skewed. Behaviours are handed down and can be hard not to emulate especially if we have lived with them from an early age.
Then many are subject to being expected to fulfil their parents perception of success. “Oh you need to be a solicitor, or an architect or a doctor” the young are told as if there is no other way in the world. You did become a doctor but I still remember my surprise when you came home and said that was to be your chosen career path. I mean, we’d been to a careers evening on the fire service shortly before and there you were saying “I’m going to study medicine”. I can definitely say I did not steer you down that path or suggest it as one of a limit number of acceptable careers. And that attitude, was it a reaction to my own parents who had definite ideas about what I should do with my life? I think, because, from an early age I had been told what was acceptable and what was not, I determined not to define what you should do and allow you to work with your own aspirations. My rebel nature came through. For good or bad? That’s for you to decide.
Now I’m sat here wondering how much of my attitude was a direct reaction to the model gone before? I have had a number of conversation with grown people, some more mature people, who still labour under the anguish of expectations given long ago, who are driven to achieve because they were told over and over they had to do better or, more cruelly, told “You’ll never be any good”. The power of parental expectation is surprisingly strong and the need to win approval, is for some, compulsive. It becomes a prison.
How do we take on this mantle? Indeed, a seminal moment in my life was, as an adult (yes I was grown up once. Won’t do that again!) hearing my own father, after a particular personal success, say, almost to himself, “I wish my father could have seen this now”. And his father dead 30 years. I wondered what was the story behind that remark for, surely, there was one. What was there to prove and why? My father, a damaged child albeit 60 years of age?
Then, taking a long look at other parents, I have seen the pain in their own lives and the desperate attempts to fulfil dreams through their children. It’s not limited to career success. No, it spills heavily into what should be hobby’s or pastimes. I have stood on the touch line of young people’s sports matches and watched the real competition take place, not on the pitch, but amongst the parents spectating. The pressure put verbally on some children to perform has been worrying. However, more concerning than that, the behaviour of some parents has been tribal right up to the point of violent clashes. What chance do our children have both in terms of pressure and, more importantly, in terms of role model. I ask whether this behaviour is a result of the parents own failure to meet expectations put on them as they grew? Damaged children?
So here I am, hoping I have left you with no pressures or the need to prove anything to me. I have believed that as a parent it is my duty to protect you, provide for you and lay before you the possibilities that you have the potential to fulfil. From those you make a choice. If you’d chosen to be a fire fighter or a photographer rather than a doctor then we would still have been good. I’d rather you were happy than considered a high flyer by those around and about. Maybe that should be our ambition as parents, to produce the next generation of happy, well rounded people. And our own pain? Well first there is a need to take a long hard look at the expectations we hand down and where our interest lies. Are we more interested in achievement than we are in happy, fulfilled children? Is our goal to find personal satisfaction through our children or to enable them to fulfil their own potential, wherever that may manifest?
It’s said that a child is a clean slate. I’m not so sure and if she is, then who’s the one writing on it. There’s a place, as parents, for some serious questions to be asked around motives, opinions and intentions. I think it takes a big person to move from the attitude of ‘I only want the best for…’ to taking hands off, shelving unfulfilled personal ambitions, and allowing a child to become what she chooses to be. It will happen as much as a flower will blossom into bloom given the right circumstances. We are talking about a person, an individual, who has their own destiny to fulfil. The shame is, like many of us, many of them will struggle because of the behaviour of parents both well intentioned and otherwise.
We are indeed the damage children of damaged children
But remember, from this point forward, what ever you choose to do, we’re good.
Yours, seeking healing,