Defending our Parents

A friend and I were talking about her new husband's relationship to her six-year-old daughter. "He just wants discipline. Things would go so much better if he would play with her sometimes, but he never does." "Could you talk with him about his own childhood, and how hard it was on him to have parents who never played?" "Absolutely not! He will not hear a word against his mother. 'She raised me up under hard conditions. She was strict--she had to be--and look how well I turned out.' No, I won't get anywhere trying that."

This response, second-hand, from a problematic man I'd never met, touched a chord. I've always resonated to loyalty in general, and I find such touching loyalty to parents particularly bittersweet. Perhaps it's because I knew that feeling as a child, but have since taken a different stand--that my parents were not perfect--and hold it with equal passion. There was also something about his stubborn refusal to listen that I appreciated. I know, on a very deep level, that we're never going to help people change by criticizing those that they love; clearly he knew that too. And I think he had an important message about oppression. His mother was struggling to do well by her loved ones in a society that lacked some basic respect for her and her family. In a situation where respect is so grossly lacking from the outside, it makes perfect sense for a perceptive and loving child to take a stand, holding up that respect and demanding it--absolutely--from others.

I feel a sense of affinity, yet I'm very ready to criticize my parents, acutely conscious of all their (many) mistakes, personally determined to do this job differently. It feels like they got more respect than they deserved for the job they did, and someone needs to be talking about it. It occurs to me, as I'm trying to think this through, that we could learn from each other. Maybe together we could find a third way.

I know where to start: giving our parents, and the parents of our partners and everyone else that we know, full and unreserved credit for the job they did. Though some of them had to struggle more than others, and their struggles took very different forms, they all raised their families under adverse circumstances and without adequate support. Though some were more successful than others, they all did the very best they could figure out. Regardless of whether we are pulled to trash our parents or to defend them to the death, this reality needs to be the starting place.

I think there's an even larger issue here, about the past and the future. The past deserves enormous respect. If we operate with any assumption of human goodness, we have to believe that people were doing the best they could, given the background they came from and the situations they had to deal with (as we were doing the best we could figure out in our own past). Without respect for the past, our thrust into the future is unbalanced. Yet clinging to the past limits our options for the future as well. With respect, the past can stand by itself. The future can be something entirely different.

I think of this good son and appreciate his fierce loyalty to the past, but wish that he could see more choices for the future, not be bound to replicate his mother's parenting style in honor of all her love and hard work. "Honor thy father and thy mother" does not have to mean "Do what they did." We can love them, appreciate their efforts and choices, and choose a different way.

So the question that leads toward growth for this loyal son and struggling new parent has to include complete respect for the childhood his mother gave him, and the possibility of something new. Maybe: "Can you imagine what it would have been like if your mother had had time to play with you?" "Yes," said my friend eagerly. "Yes, I think that might work."