When I accepted a position as therapist in a group practice in New York City, I had one reservation about the population I would be serving. I had three small children at the time, and was committed heart and soul to the parenting process, and to my children’s healthy development spiritually, physically, emotionally and educationally. Being eleven years into the process of parenting, I was quite aware of how much I had been investing for their benefit. Naturally I was concerned that if my younger clients complained about their parents, I might not be able to empathize with my client, and might actually side with the absent parent.
What I encountered in my sessions quite surprised me. Most of my clients spoke of their parents with gratitude, pride and love. They wanted to understand their growing-up years from their parents’ perspective, and had sympathy for the struggles of their parents. Of course there were many who had sought counseling because of significant woundedness in their families of origin, which limited their ability to empathize with their parents, or to love and respect them. Interestingly enough, these clients looked forward to the day when they would make peace with the parents who had at times neglected or abused them, or failed to protect them.
On a very fundamental human level, there is a part of each of us that remembers what it felt like to be young and helpless, and when it would be life-threatening to be without love and nurture. When a parent is a good parent, we never forget to need them, and to love them for their care, sacrifice and modeling of what it is to be human. Sure, there are mixed feelings, bad memories, and hurtful words exchanged in even the best of families. But around Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, when we have the opportunity to show Mom and Dad our appreciation, it can be helpful to reflect on why we have parents.
Parents teach life skills, with purpose. What do humans do when they are hungry, tired, or need connection? Parents teach children how to use language; how communicate hunger, and how to eat; how to fall asleep; how to label and express emotions; and how to keep their bodies clean. Some parents exercise a lot of control over these learning processes, and others prefer to let the child discover what works best. The tendency to exercise more or less control can vary depending on the age of the child, or in response to the child needing more or less help with learning a particular set of skills. Parents of young children often vow to teach their child differently than how they were taught. What is more important than the style of parenting is that healthy parents notice a child’s needs, and then organize solutions around those needs. Healthy families communicate that beyond mere survival, someone cares about the child as a person. Parents who meet their child’s basic needs consistently, and while communicating personal interest in the child, have children who are more hopeful and purpose-filled.
Parents teach not only values, but also that there are such things as values. Babies show concern and distress when they notice that another baby is in distress. Parents teach children that there are ways to respond to another’s distress, and that they can comfort someone who is suffering. In healthy families children learn right from wrong, but healthy parents also go beyond teaching consequences. They teach that there isn’t a rule governing every situation, so that sometimes a young person will have to really think and process what the right response is to a given situation. They teach that “doing the right thing” matters because every human being is worthy of dignity for their humanity. When a young person chooses to make bad choices, good parents consistently remind him or her of the values involved.
Parents teach sacrifice, and to expect sacrifice. Sharing toys, taking turns, and breaking the candy bar into fair halves, are all childhood exercises that lead children to be thoughtful of others, and to expect thoughtfulness from the people they are close to. When parents coach their child to pick out a really nice birthday gift for their friend, and not just the first thing they see in the store, kids learn to think beyond themselves. The popularity of various service projects for teens speaks to the desire among today’s parents for their teens to learn that the needs of people out there are just as important as getting good grades. Experiencing “life after sacrifice” leads young people to be givers, and to be attracted to others who are generous with their time, talents, and finances.
Good parents model sacrifice too. My parents participated in the civil rights movement, volunteered with Meals on Wheels, taught Sunday school, and served on the PTA. One Christmas, my Mom and Dad organized their Bible Study group to provide all of the Christmas presents as well as groceries and heating fuel to a family in our neighborhood, a Mom with five children. As I listened in on conversations about the arrangements, and watched the piles of Christmas presents grow in the living room of our little house, my desires for Christmas and for my life shifted, and I became a human being. Character is love in action. Children of all ages do notice character in their parents. As long as the child’s needs are not neglected in favor of needs outside the family, children derive from their parents’ character a particular kind of security that motivates them to respond to the needs of others. This is how character begets character.
Parents teach us that people need people, not just skills. They teach us about values, and that humans are more than just a collection of atoms. They teach us to give of ourselves, and to expect sacrifice from someone who loves us. Even through their mistakes, parents show us that something is wrong, or missing in our lives. In this Mother’s Day and Father’s Day season, if you have a parent who taught you to be human, you have much to be thankful for.