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October 2004
Beyond Father/Mother Knows Best

by Annie Fox, M.Ed.

Before we were parents, we had parents. People who showed us what it took to be a mom and a dad. 

"By sharing the truth of your emotional experience in appropriate ways, you can give your kids the chance to exercise their compassion and to grow beautifully toward adulthood."

One morning when I was 5 years old, I heard my mother sobbing behind the door of her room and I heard my father comforting her. My brothers told me that Grandpa had died. A while later, Mom emerged. Her lipstick bright red. Her hair  freshly brushed. She cheerfully asked what I wanted for breakfast. I wasn’t hungry, I was confused. I wanted to ask about Grandpa, but my mother’s tight smile warned me not to say anything that might upset her. While I pushed a piece of French toast around on my plate, I had a realization. To be a grown up means that you have to hide your sadness!

When I was 15 my father died suddenly of a heart attack. His passing left a huge hole in my heart, but instead of grieving I did what I thought grown-ups did. I suppressed my sadness. For years!

Fast-forward 25 years. I’m at the dentist’s office having a filling replaced. The doctor pauses in the procedure to rest a gentle hand on my head and ask how I’m doing. At his touch a tidal wave of sadness sweeps over me. For the next 48 hours I’m emotionally numb and clueless about what’s going on.

My wonderful husband David helped me realize that the dentist’s touch reminded me of my father, who often tousled my hair. The floodgates burst open... finally I was able to grieve for my dad and through my expression of loss, I released myself from feelings which had held me hostage for decades.

That day I learned about the power of unexpressed emotions. They don’t actually ever go away.  Instead, they work like a mild acid, slowly eroding your insides, boring holes in your emotional foundation and creating gaps in your ability to connect with others. I decided not to ever bury feelings that need to be expressed, and to teach my children, through my own example, to express their emotions in healthy ways.

During most of 1994 my mother was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Every day I drove an hour each way to visit her.  We began communicating with an intimacy that had never been part of our relationship. I am so grateful for those last 10 months we had together, but they were excruciatingly painful. After spending the day with Mom I’d arrive home each night to my own family - scared, stressed, and worn out beyond belief. But I offered up no lipstick smiles for anyone’s benefit. Instead, I trusted that our daughter and son (then ages 15 and 9) would know how to respond to a person in need. And they did! Their hugs, and loving words of encouragement got me through that year. I don’t know how I’d have coped if not for David and our sweet children. But had I played the game of “Everything’s Fine, honey” I would have denied my own emotional needs and robbed my kids of an opportunity to learn what it means to be, a real “human being.” By sharing the truth of my emotional experience that year, I gave them the chance to exercise their compassion (toward me and their grandmother) and to grow beautifully toward adulthood.

For years we were on the receiving end of our parents’ choices, observing closely everything they did.  As little children we accepted that they knew best about what we needed.  As teens we wondered if they had a clue about who we were.  After that long “apprenticeship” and at least several years of on the job training with kids of our own, what could we possibly NOT know about being a parent? We know it all, right? (Maybe yes, maybe no.)

How many of you are consciously trying to raise your children
differently from the way you were raised?

I’m trying to do that too, every single day. Which means, as much as we love or loved our parents, there is always room for improvement.  That’s a good thing and not necessarily a sign of disrespect.  Every generation should consciously explore the way they parent so that the individual needs of each child are met. 

How many of you find yourself unconsciously saying and
doing the same things your parents did?

When we automatically do things the way our parents did, relationships don’t work as well as they could.  Why? Because we are not our parents.  And our children are not us.  Their needs are different. Our needs are different.  And we owe it to them and to ourselves to create a healthy parent child relationship in the moment.

Healthy relationships (which are the only kind worth having) are based on mutual trust, honesty, respect, open communication and conscious choices. Model this behavior, and you will improve the quality of your family life.  Show them by example, how kind and loving people treat one another.  Do this, and you help your children create and maintain healthy friendships. Do this, and you give them the tools to build stronger marriages and families of their own. In that way, what you teach your kids can make the world a better place, one family at a time.

Got a parent-teen problem you need help with?

Click here to Ask Annie

 

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