How to child
Erin Thomassen | Thursday, January 19, 2017
There are too many books on how to parent and not enough books on how to child. Parents take their job seriously, as reflected by the number of books written and read on the subject. When these parents were kids, why did they not care enough about being a good child to seek advice?
Parents would love for babies to realize how their incessant crying prevents them from sleeping. Yet parents know that babies cannot read, and thus the market for “Stop Your Crying, Your Parents are Dying” and “Don’t Spit on my Sweater” is virtually nonexistent. Though many children can start reading by ages 4 to 5, they are egotistic by developmental constraint; the social cognitive “Theory of Mind” states that children under the age of 5 do not have brains developed enough to understand that other people have their own feelings and thoughts. They are the center of the universe, and their parents are just that: parents. Thus any book about how to help make their parents’ lives easier would not make sense or be important to them.
Yet somewhere along the maturational process, children understand that other people have their own beliefs and experiences. One day, they realize that their parents are not solely older humans to whom they are attached, but multidimensional beings with emotions, aspirations and problems.
I am embarrassed to say that I came to this realization much too late, way after my brain would have been capable of empathy. It started for me in college, when I started thinking about what my future family would be like. Over Thanksgiving, I would teach my daughter to throw a perfect spiral while my husband would roast a turkey with our sons. Yes, we would defy gender stereotypes and bond with our children at the same time. (I would have to learn how to throw a football first but that was a minor detail). While this daydream was swimming in my head, it hit me: For my mom and dad, I was this child they dreamed of bonding with. Our family was their shot at achieving familial bliss.
My family did not turn out as expected. With my parents divorced and remarried, my family became two conglomerations of biological and step-relatives rather than one traditional unit. Yet this did not mean I could not have meaningful relationships with my parents individually.
I had years of ignoring of my parents’ thoughts and feelings to make up for. I had to replace a tendency towards dismissal with listening, a habit of judgment to replace with compassion. My first step was starting to care about my parents’ inner lives. That should have been a given, but for the majority of my childhood, everything centered on Erin’s world. I was happy to put work in to have fun and fulfilling relationships with my friends. I assumed, though, that a great relationship with my parents should be natural. If we are biologically related, shouldn’t we get along? Unfortunately, shared genes do not guarantee smooth relationships. In fact, a shared tendency towards passive aggression or extreme sensitivity in multiple family members can be recipes for disaster.
I had to put effort into my relationships with my parents, even though they loved me unconditionally. It was almost dangerous to know that my parents would love me regardless of whether I snapped at them or spent time with them, because it allowed me to “relax” at home: to speak without filter and act without fear of consequences. I realized eventually that my home self, my “unedited” self, was just the worst version of myself.
Though I loved my parents in thought, I wasn’t loving them in action. I didn’t make sacrifices for them or forgive past mistakes. I let myself get annoyed by the smallest things — my father talking during a movie at the theater or my mom keeping open 30 web browsers on her iPhone. These things never would have annoyed me in a friend — in fact, I would have found them endearing. So I decided to work on finding these idiosyncrasies endearing rather than annoying. Father-daughter and mother-daughter time became 10 times more enjoyable.
Most movies and television series focus on relationships with peers as the most important part of young adulthood, and parents are portrayed as cops or uncool and embarrassing. Yet friends come and go as we grow up and move from home to college to work, and parents are the constant in our lives. My parents love me unconditionally, which tempts me to sloth off in my relationship with them. Thus I require a higher moral motivation for loving my parents in action: not avoiding punishment or seeking reward, but striving towards universal principles of love, gratitude and kinship. Perhaps the same can be said of my relationship with God.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.