Friday, October 20th 2017

Killing me with kindness

How I learned to forgive my parents for their easy-going, Dr. Spock style of parenting — and grow up


GUEST COLUMN: ELLA GRANT — Okay, what’s the most unpleasant parent-related memory that you have from your childhood? And what would be the best? If the nastiest episode comes to mind quickly, and the best experience not so quickly — maybe like me — you need to open up a little box of forgiveness and see what comes out.

When I was a young child my parents were very good to me — no physical beatings, no harsh words.   But as I came to realize later, perhaps their fatal flaw was that they were too good. Child psychology tells me that I was raised in a permissive manner: loving and child-centered, but totally non-demanding.

Everything I did was fine: bad behavior (i.e. being mean to friends, saying cruel things that popped into my mind) was ignored. “Pushing the envelope” quickly became my favorite game!  If I brought home a bad math mark from school, the comment from my mother was, “Don’t feel bad — I didn’t do well in math either.” The comment was designed to make me feel better, but didn’t help me realize that with work, I might achieve better marks.

As a very small child, if I couldn’t sleep at night, I was allowed to stay up all night reading. In fact, it’s only now, in my 30′s, that I’m no longer afraid of the dark or being alone in a house by myself at night.

There were no ground rules or guidelines for my behavior, and I was treated like a mini-adult.  And this over-indulgence has crafted me into what I am today: I don’t like authority figures, and don’t admit when I’m wrong. I don’t want to be a leader, or a follower, and remain a bit blurry on the concepts of self-control and self-discipline.

In my teen years we ran a family business, and that created a fresh kind of hell, including many times where my father verbally took out his frustration on my mother and myself. Sometimes I tried to stand up for her, but often I put her down myself, for which I still feel guilty.

When he yelled at me, I would sass him back and then laugh at him. But inside I felt that I didn’t have his approval, or love, on any level.

So, many years later, those are the negatives that come to mind.

parentsBut there are also positives attached to the life we shared together. I’m a very adaptable person, honed by years of feast or famine when it came to monetary concerns — i.e. sometimes we were eating steak, sometimes (okay, a lot) . . .TV dinners.

I’m very loving and affectionate, thanks to a tactile and loving mother and grandmother. I try not to judge people and look at all of us as parts of the whole, whether a person is begging on the street or zooming by in a Lexus. (Although I am a reverse snob when it comes to the poor, and society’s underdogs). And, oh yes, my inner child is not inner. It’s right out there most of the time.

Now, I see my parents as people who did their best using the toolbox of parenting skills that they had at that time.  I have chosen not to be a parent, but can see from those around me who are, that it isn’t easy.

If you are harboring feelings of repressed anger against your parents, I urge you to let the feelings go and understand that your parents didn’t have all the answers, just as we don’t as we go through life. It’s a work in progress for all of us.

After understanding and accepting where we are from, we can move on to change the parts of our personality we don’t like. I’m moving on to discover that I can do things: I can cook meals, enjoy tending a garden, write — and make my own living. I don’t need to be coddled . . . although that mind-set and behaviors do return sometimes.  I also don’t need to say everything that pops into my mind, even if I think it’s amazingly witty or funny.

Examine whatever it is about your upbringing that is holding you back. Is it worth clinging to, or is it time to look at the positives that your parents gave you, and move on?

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14 Comments on “Killing me with kindness”

  1. Thank you for this. I like what Thomas Moore says in Care of the Soul, that ones childhood is merely the raw materials out of which you build a life. My own experience, with an emotionally unbalanced mother, was that the experience itself, and the therapy I did to work beyond it became a gift that has helped me be more empathetic to people I counsel. If I hadn't had the particular childhood I had, I would not be the person i am. And when I realized that I could experience my past as a gift rather than feel victimized by it, I was able to forgive and let go of it. My mother didn't have the choices I had (my father thought that "anyone who went to a "shrink" ought to have his head examined"). She was pretty much playing out what she had received from her childhood as best she could. She loved us to the extent she was able, as did my father, who also had experienced a distubing childhood (until he died he rarely talked about it. I didn't even know his parents' names until I was 27). We can either hold on to our wounds or let them become gifts. That takes a lot of work, but it's worth it.

    You obviously have done this. Thank you.


  2. My single biggest fear about publishing the Living in Fear triology was that people would perceive that the only message I had was "my mommy was mean and she killed herself." Not at all... my message is that I grew up as a good person despite all the turmoil around me. I managed for years to turn the gun on myself and I had to figure out that it was self-harm, not what others had done. And out of that history came the strength and courage I have today -- who I am. I used to say it all happened to help others until someone proposed to me that I deliberately chose my journey -- to help myself; and I had never looked at it that way before. That means that I can also choose and empower myself to choose positive and uplifting memories and life experiences...and I think this what I heard from your piece.

    Thank you for this -- it gave me an opening to say, "hey... we survived all of it..." and also to remember that I had to learn that I was a parent to my children, not their buddy. It took me until #3 to figure that out.


  3. One of the things I love about this site is that it has encouraged people like both of you to be very open and revelatory. That takes courage, and it is only in this courageous openness that others can be encouraged to consider other ways of looking at their own experiences. I am grateful to both of you.

    David Rickey

  4. I enjoy reading Soul's Code, but this story makes your site sound ridiculous. We will always find fault or have issues with others in our lives, but I don't think we should all think of ourselves as victims. Though I found worth in your writer's message at the end about letting feelings of blame go, perhaps your site should be directed toward issues that can serve your viewers better.

  5. i don't read this as a victim story at all. the message of the article is to move on...take the raw materials that your parents and environment have given you and create your own reality. the article definitely seems to have struck a nerve with you. maybe you'd like to write something for the site about your own experiences?

  6. This article is well-written -- I love the writer's style. Her story hit home, as it apparently did with the other readers. Not at all a pity party, I found it refreshingly gentle and optimistic as far as imperfect parent stories go.

    If you're open to submissions, I am inspired to respond with my own story soon. Thank you for this site.

  7. Your childhood environment, as remembered, is so different than the story I recollect about my own.

    Yours was permissive, mine was oppressive.

    But it is interesting that I shared your response to parents:

    "When he yelled at me, I would sass him back and then laugh at him. But inside I knew that I didn’t have his approval, or love, on any level."

    When we judge our parents as "losers" -- or somehow, "non-parents" -- we emotionally orphan ourselves.

    I didn't mean that in a tragic way. It's the essential trigger which sets us on a course of inner-direction, to use David Reisman's phrase.

    Thank you for sharing yours.

  8. Lucy, I'm with you... and further, Ella should take a look around instead of looking inside so much. Start in Africa.

  9. i really love how this site sparks discussions and introspection for those who are ready for it...keep up the good work soulscoders!!

  10. I can see that the writer was stung and insightful about her upbringing. Parenting isn't easy. However, I believe even parents learn as they reflect on their mistakes and seem to forgive themselves for the mistakes in how they raised their children. It's only as an adult we can express to our parents when, what, how and why? We can then speak to them objectively and not subjectively (without emotions); reflect and maybe we can get an apology from them. However, forgiveness is the biggest step any body can make on themselves, it causes healing and growth. Forgiveness is love, not only for the parents but to yourself, and that's when you know you are healed and ready to move on. Good for you!!

  11. Well, as one of many people in this world who did not have perfect childhoods I found the healing and forgiveness message of your article really thought provoking.
    Over the years I have also experienced a personal struggle to forgive my parents for certain situations and aspects of my childhood and teenage years.
    Like yourself that came with realizing that they had their own personal struggles and were not equipped with as you described them, the "tools" necessary, and many problems stemmed from them feeling unprepared and overwhelmed.
    In many ways my childhood could read as a "what not to do" manual, so knowing my awareness of that is what makes me certain I am not doomed to repeat the same parenting cycle with my own children.
    Forgiveness does not mean we have to forget, it means we come to the situation with understanding and a measure of acceptance.

  12. Well said Anne, I agree. Many people struggle to forgive their parents mistakes, especially when they realize how those actions impacted them so deeply. As an adult you have to try to understand where they were coming from and forgive, which is made more difficult when you can't talk with your parents about these issues -- it invariably ends in hurt feelings and misunderstanding on their part. I think it can help if you have siblings to talk to about the past. Thanks for this thought provoking article Ella.

  13. Great perspective on "letting go" and parenting.
    Not easy.
    I come from a strict English background, with all the pro's and cons,
    grateful for the opportunities, (in the meantime) progressively understanding of my "let-downs".

    Years ago I told my parents that I was sorry for the grief I had caused them and pleased for their gifts.
    A not so evident thing in their rather distant and dated views on this world, yet I had come to see
    them as persons and no longer in their role as parents.
    When raising my own 2 boys, the main theme for us was consequence and communication.
    For me personally above all I wanted them to get to know me as a person,
    with all I had to offer and my admitted flaws as well, in a warm loving atmosphere.

    As far as the sour comment above relating to Africa, all I can say is I physically tried it and it takes an African ( or a lifetime over there) to understand how we could possibly be of any durable help in the first place.
    Throwing a sack of food out of a plane is not the answer, the impact and eco footprint alone makes it a bit dubious.
    "Darwins nightmare" is a no frills doc on the state of affairs in that continent now.

    There's enough to be done locally on a humanistic level in that respect,
    but that could sometimes be to confronting or self evident.

    Back on topic, I think once we see our parents as persons, it becomes easier to feel what it was about and to move out of that place, we all get to cut the cord sometime, and cherish the effort they made.

  14. if i live to 90 i might make a good parent, with luck! am 42 with 19, 16 and 9 year old boys.

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