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Mom & Dad

"Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older, they judge them; sometimes they forgive them."

-Oscar Wilde

Many countries around the world including the United Stated will be observing both “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day” sometime in the next two months. So I thought it would be a good introductory topic to talk about parents and parenting in general as we’ve all typically had many experiences with that role in shaping and influencing who we are today, whether those were good or bad or other types of experiences. We’re all here because we each had a mother and a father at one point in our lives and each of them in turn had two parents going back through all of human history.

It is very common for us today to have known some or all our grandparents but far less ever knew a great-grandparent. It always amazes me to meet a new counseling client and realize how much of life may have been influenced by a parent or grandparent but so few of us know much at all about our great-grandparents. It is such an influential role in life but often quickly forgotten when the older generations of parents eventually pass away, and later generations come along.

I feel fortunate to have met and still remember three of my grandparents. The fourth was my mother’s father who died in his sleep when I was two years-old and the last picture of him was taken as he straddled my tricycle at a family picnic and my cousin Mark was trying to lift me up onto my grandfather’s shoulders. I’m told he died later that night and it appeared at least from that picture as though he was having a nice day.

The only other thing I know of him is that he was obsessed with music, had taught himself how to play every instrument in the orchestra, and once played the bassoon as a short-term substitute in the Philadelphia Orchestra. I suspect that is why music had a strong theme on my mother’s side of the family and I have a cousin on that side who is a world renowned harpsicord artisan in Tuscany today.

My other three grandparents were known to me and of those, only my father’s mother ever paid attention to me or spoke to me. My mother’s mother said: “Children should be seen and not heard,” and even though she lived to almost a hundred years of age, I can only remember a few words she ever spoke to me. My father’s father was an alcoholic and later developed debilitating Parkinson’s Disease which was attributed to many decades of alcohol abuse and semi-professional heavy-weight boxing in Philadelphia. That leaves just one grandparent of the four who left me with kind memories and that was my father’s mother. One of my favorite memories of Grandmom Welsh was her letting me flip her butane lighter open to light her cigarettes when she would visit. And while that is a fond memory for me, I don’t think that would be thought of too fondly today!

All four of my grandparents quit school by eighth grade, yet all could read and write, and all worked hard outside the home to provide income for my mother’s family of six children and my father’s family of three children. Beyond that I only know my mother’s family emigrated to Philadelphia from Germany in the early 1600’s and my father’s family emigrated to Philadelphia from England in the late 1600’s. That is known only from extensive genealogical research my wife completed as otherwise my parents had little knowledge of their own grandparents.

One other caveat which sticks with me is that every man in my father’s line going back to the 1600’s died in his mid-sixties with the only exception being my grandfather who died at 80. That’s the grandfather who was the alcoholic and boxer and while I’m not an alcoholic, I have had a stroke and two other traumatic brain injuries so I’m hoping maybe that has unlocked a family key to help me beat the mid-sixties death odds of my father’s lineage :)

The Christian bible tells us to honor our parents and we will be blessed with long life, and it also says for parents not to exasperate their children. In my counseling and therapy work, I’ve often seen much of both being violated and much of that is also why people can end up struggling with things like self-esteem, acceptance, trust, love, and many other things later in life. Forgiveness is often a solution and elixir to many of these emotional ills, but it can be a steep proverbial mountain to climb. It also shouldn’t be attempted until there is clarity that it is the right time and in the right order to do so, which is often where I enter in to hopefully help people sort that out.

Time and culture have changed to the point that just as it would be socially unacceptable to encourage a child to light his grandmother’s cigarettes today, it is also no longer acceptable to let children have as much physical independence outdoors. As an example, I was pleasantly surprised as well as shocked to remember a childhood memory I had long forgotten after receiving a letter from a distant cousin of mine a few weeks ago. She reminded me of how we would gather at our grandparents’ house in Philadelphia every Easter and after dinner her and I would walk the alleys to look for rats and we counted ourselves as lucky if we encountered some pretty big ones. We were between six and eight years-old at the time and our parents were more than happy for us to entertain ourselves that way for hours. Today, that might be worthy of a phone call to the local Child Welfare office if young children were left unattended for hours in the alleys of a major city.

Modern times have brought us the popular notion of “helicopter parenting” where parents may be overly involved in the daily activities of their children and typically to the later detrimental development of their children, despite the best of intentions. Much has been researched on both the cause and effects of helicopter parenting and most often this occurs in parents who have unresolved fears and anxiety or succumb to perceived peer-pressure from parents in their social circles. In other cases that helicopter parenting may be overcompensation for what those parents experienced themselves as children and have not forgiven or come to terms with.

Children growing up in the rotor wash of helicopter parenting are often found to have lower self-confidence, increased anxiety, undeveloped coping skills, poor adaptation of important life skills and sometimes an increased sense of entitlement. So, it is increasingly clear that how we were parented can often determine who we become, including our character traits, strengths, weaknesses, and beliefs. Beyond these individual development issues, our relationships with our parents can have even more impact on the types of relationships we later engage in ourselves as adults.

Children raised in homes with appropriately attentive parents will more often end up in healthy, committed relationships while those raised in inattentive homes are at risk of forming dependency relationships as adults. Abusive parents or those forming toxic family environments can produce children who lack healthy emotional connections and trust in relationships as adults. They may also be cynical about relationships in general or have poor views on things like love and commitment. Our own attachment styles and relationships with our parents growing up can impact all our later relationships from how we feel about our pets, to our own children, and the partners we may end up with eventually.

If you’re finding yourself thinking critically of one or both of your parents about now, you are not alone! As adults today are less likely to suffer in silence and advocate for their own emotional wellness, there has been a growing trend in adult children choosing to leave relationship with one or both parents when those relationships have been historically abusive or toxic. It is not uncommon for many adults in these families today to have not spoken to parents for many years. This can be a source of embarrassment or anxiety for these adult children having made that difficult decision, but it can help to realize they are not alone.

The good news of course is that sometimes we can still grow up healthy and well-adjusted, even if we were raised in a toxic, abusive, or unhealthy family. I find it interesting to compare notes with my wife when she cringes and gets upset if she hears our daughter-in-law tell our granddaughter: “Don’t be stupid!” My wife is afraid there could be irreparable harm being done with a comment like that and I will admit with all I’ve heard come to light during EMDR Therapy for instance, sometimes comments like that really can be impactful in an unhealthy way. Quite often though, our own internal beliefs and character can still overcome those sorts of insults without permanently damaging our self-esteems.

My wife does understand this too but says it’s still shocking and upsetting when I share vivid memories of my father referring to my brother and I as “Idiot and Dumbass” and how my brother and I would often argue which of us was which name that day. I can also remember my father shouting at me: “If you don’t stop being such a little bastard, I’m going to rip your arm off and beat you with the bloody end of it!” Somehow, I always knew he really wouldn’t do that even though I can remember visualizing what it might look like to be beaten with my own severed appendage. I like to think maybe that early visualization helped me become a better writer or a better therapist maybe. Whatever it was, it seems to have turned out alright and I’m thankful for my life perspective which helps me help others.

I’m thankful that when my own children were very young, I was working in residential treatment for at risk and delinquent youth and I saw first-hand how toxic, abusive, or ineffective parenting could lead to complications in child development. Along the way I had training, read books, started my clinical studies, and I credit those years for having made me a much better and more informed parent than I ever would have been otherwise. I’m thankful there were books and seminars my wife and I read and attended together. And I’m also honest enough to admit, despite all that great experience and training, we still made plenty of mistakes along the way in raising our children. In fact, our children seem to find great humor in reminding us of some of those when we get together as a family and reminisce now and then. We all make mistakes and fall short in some areas no matter how hard we try but the important thing is to try and to love our children in the process.

So regardless of what life may have been like for you growing up with your mother or father or both parents or anyone who “parented” you growing up – I suggest you take another minute right now – yes, a full minute – and just try to visualize who that was who spoke some good things into your self-esteem, or encouraged you, or believed in you. We’ll think about this more as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day approach but for now, take that moment of reflection and then make it a great week!

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