Ladies and gentlemen it has come to my attention, despite desperate attempts to ignore it, that I am getting older. In truth, I’ve known about this for a while. Time may heal all things but it does diddly squat for old age. I’m afraid time is so often mediated and perceived through a youthful filter. In the absence of debilitating illness or degradation, the mind, like some Dorian Gray imagining remains stubbornly unaged. It’s beat goes on, sounding out the capitulation of the body to time.
You see, I feel no different than I did twenty years ago. Sure, I’ve learnt a little more, changed a few opinions, fallen in and out of fashion and so on, but the hunger to live, love and seek out experience goes on unabated. I realise this every time I look at my parents. It is tempting to say they ‘have gotten old’, but they are the people they always were. Perhaps their characters are a little battered from the weight of so many years on this earth. The shape may look a little different here and there, but the core of who they are is unmistakably the same. It is much as it always was.
I suppose all of this sounds a little maudlin and perhaps unclear, but there is purpose in these ramblings. Parents are human beings, loaded with the same foibles, flaws and divots in character that we all have. They are not perfect. They never were. And this is important to remember, for if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past we must be mindful of it. We must be willing to learn from it.
As parents there is commonality in the mistakes we make. The greatest divergence comes with degree. The line between foible and toxicity is a narrow one, but if crossed it can do a great deal of damage indeed. Consider the following:
Some parents believe they have to prepare their kids for what they perceive to be a harsh world, one which is characterised by pragmatism and indifference to individual suffering. They achieve this through a no nonsense approach to achievement and well being. Affirmation is seen as an incidental thing, reserved for parents of weak and ineffectual children. Moving forward must be achieved at all costs. This simply put, is wrong. I’m not advocating the style of parenting that champions every passing of wind or every aborted attempt to do something new. However, the need to be seen…for those achievements that matter to oneself to be recognised… is of inestimable importance. For this to come from a parent is most important of all. We are born seeking parental approval, a powerful instinctive urge that never really goes away. Why we are so driven is harder to say. Perhaps it is something inside that yearns to show them that their efforts to procreate were not fruitless or perhaps there is some unconscious evolutionary drive to improve on what went before. Whatever it is, such recognition is the well spring of esteem. How we meet our failures, manage our successes and plot out our future endeavours is forged here. Without that recognition, security in oneself disappears. Lifetimes can be spent crumbling in the face of failure or in frantic pursuit of an achievement that we hope will one day mean something. The ability to be mindful and grateful is lost in negotiations with the past.
2. Overly Critical
This is to some extent the bedfellow of recognition. Over criticality comes from a variety of different places, but even when done for the best of reasons it can be devastating. Some parents may feel that being constantly vigilant and critical may be the most effective and efficient way of helping their child to avoid future mistakes, but the price paid for this can be much higher. This approach, like the former, is more likely to give birth to a harsh internal critic of their own whose presence will be a debilitating addition to their lives, leading not to success but procrastination and unhappiness.
3. Too needy
So often the product of number 1, can become number 3. The parent who has not had the recognition and affirmation in their childhood become determined to ‘do it right’ for their children, to shower them with as much attention as they can. This over compensation is unfortunately damaging too. The parent in question fails to realise that their ‘bonding time’ has become suffocating and the the attempt to ‘recognise’ their child has become about their relationship with their parents. The child becomes a proxy for this imperfect relationship. At the extreme it begins to consume the child, shifting the internal focus from themselves to the parent. The child may adopt a false self to cope and to please. Ultimately this robs them of the opportunity to fully become who they could be, of the time to learn skills and to simply be a kid.