But maybe we all worry too much. Did our parents agonize like this?
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I’ve spent the last few Monday afternoons in a familiar place: the vaguely dumpy waiting room outside a psychologist’s office. All the classic décor is there: dingy paint on the walls, mismatched floral chairs, ancient magazines. Oh, and this one has a dollhouse in the corner, because it belongs to a child psychologist.
I’m there with M, my 8-year-old son. We are doing a little testing to see what we can figure out about the attention issues his teachers suspect he has. He’s not having any academic problems and he has friends who seem to like him, but he’s irritable, impulsive, prone to fly off the handle when frustrated. We’ve known this forever, but it’s hard to quantify, harder still to figure out how to fix. We did occupational therapy, which was fun and resulted in his overcoming his previously intense fear of being upside down (I don’t mean to sound churlish when I say it’s hard to see what else it did). We’ve had people suggest diet changes and extreme exercise, but these feel a little faddish to us. Anyway, we are accustomed to therapy, so that’s what we’re doing.
We’ll see what happens. We’re still not sure if he really needs fixing.
Sometimes my husband and I will see M do something and say, Oh my God, I did that all the time when I was a kid. Many of his more annoying habits are carbon copies of our own childhood struggles. When M peppers us with questions—What is your favorite song by Michael Jackson? Who do you think is the best NFL quarterback of all time? What is your least favorite book by Roald Dahl?—my husband says, “Yeah, that’s me.” When he’s at maximum bossy know-it-all mode, I just shake my head and remember my own flair for driving everyone crazy.
We love him, of course. But when we recognize ourselves in him, that love can feel complicated. Because as much pride as we feel when he aces his vocabulary test or breezes through some math assignment—That’s our boy!—we feel an equally strong unsettling feeling of responsibility for his less adorable characteristics.
When we’re feeling strong and confident and happy, we talk about how we both turned out okay. And really, both of us, along with everyone we knew growing up, would probably be diagnosed with something today. The fact that we now live happy, productive lives makes us worry a little less about whatever bumps he’s encountering along his road right now.
But other times, when we feel a little more fragile, we wonder what we did to make our kids deserve this. The guilt I feel when wondering what I’ve passed along to my children hits me hard sometimes. I’m hardly the first to think about the ways in which parents pass on their bad baggage to their kids, either via genetics or through some other means. As the poet Philip Larkin put it memorably, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.”
Larkin makes a kind of argument for parental fucking up via poor child-rearing, which I’m sure is a valid and large category. But then there’s the even more devastating type: When you figure you may have screwed up your kids simply by whatever crazy genetic bag o’ tricks you handed them. Or, even if your kids don’t happen to be genetically related to you, that you may fuck them up by not knowing how to parent whatever it is they bring to the table.
Because one thing I am certain of is how much my kids, and I think most all the kids I know, come out of the box more or less fully loaded. Imbued with their own unique mix of temperamental characteristics, they are essentially the person they will become. I’m no expert, but the work of Jerome Kagan, pioneering developmental psychologist, tends to confirm my instincts in this. Kagan argues that babies demonstrate their temperamental characteristics early on and tend not to deviate from them. Some psychologists divide these temperamental traits into nine areas, including intensity, mood, adaptability, and persistence.
I don’t even have to think of my kids to see the truth in these theories. All I have to do is remember my own childhood. I was intense, blustery, in a terrific hurry at all times. I recently found my old immunization record, which also included general notes from my pediatrician. In the slot for my age 4 annual check-up, she pronounced me “bad tempered” (thankfully, she later crossed that out and wrote, “strong-willed”). Being a kid—essentially powerless, often ignored, without enough experience of the world to understand what was going on most of the time—was miserable for me. When I watch M struggle, I can see the same frustration I remember feeling at his age.
And that’s when I figure out how to let go of the guilt—that rotten feeling that I may have passed along to him my own itchy, hyper, smartass genes—and turn this uncomfortable inheritance into a gift.
Yes, I can take him to see the psychologist, which might have helped me at the same age. And I can advocate for him at school in a way that my own parents didn’t necessarily do (I don’t blame them; parents didn’t reach out to teachers like that when I was a kid). But the best gift I can give him is my own knowledge and experience. After all, I’ve been living with the same flaws/traits/what-have-you he’s currently struggling with for my whole life.
One of my favorite TV episodes of all time was on The West Wing, when recovering alcoholic chief of staff Leo McGarry talks to Josh Lyman, who was struggling with anger, workaholism, a little bit of depression … to be honest, I haven’t watched the show in years, so I don’t recall exactly what his issues were, but the point is that McGarry (the fabulous John Spencer) tells him this story:
This guy’s walkin’ down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you! Can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole; can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it’s me. Can ya help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are ya stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”
I love this scene, and Leo’s story applies perfectly to parenting (how many scraps of advice are tossed into the hole before someone will just climb in there with us?), and I try to remember it while I sit in the psychologist’s waiting room.
We aren’t good parents because we are perfect. Perfect people, if they existed, would make lousy parents. We’re good parents when we can show our kids that we know what it’s like to be found imperfect, when we share with them that we remember how it felt to be in trouble a lot for being intense and bossy, or ignored a lot for being shy and fearful. We can’t change what’s in that grab bag of traits each kid is given—in fact, trying to change them is the definition of bad parenting—but we can help them learn to love themselves, to grow up into the person they’re mean to be.
That strange place called childhood? We’ve been there before, and we can help guide them through.
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