Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bragging About Our Parents

[This essay is not part of the original Liberation and Constraint collection. The teenagers in this essay are now in their twenties, one in graduate school, and the other a Senior at the University of Kansas. Both are admirable, whatever they currently think of me. And now I have a six year old son, too. So it's all begun again. Oh, and my parents are still terrific.]

Bragging About Our Parents
By Larry Brow
Copyright 2002

These days we spend a lot of time and ink on trying to understand kids and teenagers and the crazy/weird/stupid things they do. We worry about the influence of television, movies, music, and video games. We yammer endlessly about their esteem issues and their messed up attitudes about adulthood. We worry about their lack of respect.
Part of the solution for some people has been to swamp the child in activities and lavish praise for those activities. Some parents choose to express their love and concern through a seemingly full time commitment to their child’s every want and need. Whether it’s, “My child is an honor student at…,” or “My child can beat up your honor student,” many parents live through the achievements of their children.
I have had my share of this myself, though my children would be mortified if I ever put a bumper sticker about them on our car. Children are an eternal wellspring of story material and I have gladly told the stories to anyone who would listen. What seems more important to me though, is that they have stories to tell about me.
As a child I moved around a lot. My parents are academics and it seemed as if every other year I was the new kid in school. Under those conditions you cling to your family for a sense of identity and you depend upon their accomplishments for a sense of capability and purpose. I could brag about my parents (and still can). It gave me strength and it gave me an edge.
For most kids, their parents just work. Whatever the jobs are, it may be hard for the child to really understand the skills and accomplishments the job entails. Further, many jobs in our culture suffer a lot of bashing in the media. For instance, lawyers and salesmen may have children who lie about what their parents do, or feel no value in it except for the salary.
My parents are fluent in three languages and can read a couple more. Both in their sixties, my father still plays water polo and my mother is a librarian of legendary competence. I am proud to be their son and it has been part of my wanting to be a worthy person doing worthy things.
I look at my two teenagers carefully these days looking for the dangerous cracks in their self-esteem or the over-willingness to accommodate stupid friends. I see two fine people unwilling to have stupid friends. Two people who use seatbelts without shame or second thought. Two people who see cigarettes as idiotic and drunkenness as an undesirable loss of self-control. And I see them looking at me.
They see the man they grew up with; a lifelong martial artist, a working potter, a writer, a teacher. They see faults, as well, and dare to comment on them. Those faults get talked about. I am a work-in-progress, as are they. But their lives are not so much about the time they spend with their parents as it is about the time they spend elsewhere. What do they take from their parents to strengthen and protect them when those parents are absent?
Do they take with them rules or respect, pride or prejudice, praise or complaint? What do you do as a person (who happens to be a parent) to fill your child with respect? Every child wants to have something in their lives worthy of their friends’ envy. How many of us only supply money and material possessions? The next time you’re tempted to sign your kid up for yet another after-school activity why not sign yourself up for one instead? (And I don’t mean bowling and a few beers with the guys.) If your child is learning to play an instrument why not pick up an instrument yourself? If your kids play soccer, you could, too. Learn a language or improve your command of a language you studied as a child. Write a book. Do something.
Everyone I know who is happy with their parents (and by extension happy with themselves) expresses their respect for their parents in praise. That praise is never about money or possessions. One man’s mother produced television shows for public TV. A woman’s parents still travel the world in their seventies. Another woman’s father was indeed a great bowler, and used to go jogging back when the police still found that a suspicious activity. And so on, story after story.
Certainly men and women of accomplishment have found ways over the centuries to fail or ruin their kids. Many others have simply failed to express their own accomplishments appropriately. But for a sad multitude of parents, creating and shepherding the child seems to be their only accomplishment. All vices, faults, and mistakes aside, when you go to brag about your child consider what they might have to brag about in return.
Your child desperately wants to admire you, in part so that they can admire themselves, and in part so that your praise is more meaningful. Be admirable. Live courageously. Find ways to be worthy of their respect.

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