No Map, No Compass
Since 2006 I’ve worked with hundreds of parents as a teacher, dean, and now as a counselor. In that time I’ve been exposed to a dizzying variety of attitudes and assumptions about parenting. I’ve seen trauma and its long-term effects, and I’ve seen the healing power of deep love and attunement, sometimes all within the same family. What strikes me the most about my experiences with families and parents is that a common intention – to do right by one’s kids – can show up in such an incredibly wide array of behaviors.
Some parents grew up in homes where, as kids, they felt understood and accepted much of the time. Most did not. In either case, what we know is what we’ve experienced. For the majority of us who would hope to improve things (I’m speaking here emotionally) for our own kids, that process is largely terra incognita – unknown land. Interrupting intergenerational dysfunction is an endeavor akin to re-routing the Mississippi river. Many parents in many generations are extremely well-meaning, and yet dysfunction persists.
So. No manual, no map, no compass. This is the scenario for the vast majority of parents.
Now it is certainly the case that much has been written and said about how to proceed in these unknown waters. I will not add much to that discussion here. But I do want to emphasize one message that, in my observation, seem to be undervalued.
Happy parents tend to have happy kids. There are important and interesting exceptions to this pattern, but for the most part kids learn basically by osmosis. Parents who do the things necessary to keep themselves: 1) at peace, and 2) inspired by life, are teaching their kids to do the same. Most parents simply don’t do this. For many, life is too full of commitments and responsibilities for navel-gazing, or once you’re past thirty, you should know yourself plenty well, or whatever. Perhaps most pernicious is the insistence that “fine” = at peace, or that a house in the right zip code, a relatively new SUV, and two weeks in Aspen = happiness. This is not the case.
Every human being has the responsibility to do the work to understand and unconditionally love him or herself, and to learn what actually brings deep joy (not just pleasure). And, we have the responsibility to orient our daily lives (not just our “worldview” but our choices and sacrifices) around these things. This is not usually easy, but these are the challenges we need to face, and these are the triumphs that require the values we would hope our kids inherit: courage, persistence, kindness, and humility.