Like most people, I’ve had a complicated relationship with my parents.
Fiercely loving them, but at the same time holding onto old resentments and hurt. As I read a study recently that found children’s behavioral styles at age three are linked to their adult personality traits, I had a stunning realization: Our parents are just children themselves! Sure, they’ve grown up—as in they’ve gotten taller and older. But who’s to say they ever got a chance to grow, emotionally, past childhood and the things that imprinted on their souls?
We think just because our parents had authority over us and could tell us when to go to bed (way too early) and got to decide whether The Simpsons was appropriate childhood entertainment (nope), it means they are somehow immune to the tribulations of life that can create lasting flaws and fears.
Logically, we know that is not true. We can objectively look at adults all around us and know and (sometimes) accept they have flaws and probably don’t have all the answers. And yet, our own parents are held to a different standard. You should know better, we say, subconsciously speaking to our fallible parents. You, who held the reins of my young spirit, you should have known what to do. And because you didn’t, I am going to hold you responsible for all the pain in my life; all of the times I didn’t try.
But wait. Why should this be true? Some day I will be a parent, and I seriously doubt all of my shortcomings will vanish because of it. I won’t suddenly become a genius of a human just because I birthed one.
If we were to roll back the tape on our parents’ childhoods, we would see that they too were once just vulnerable creatures.
We would see all the ways they had been hurt and disappointed. And maybe they still are, but they’ve covered it up with more “adult-like” characteristics, like road rage and addictions. And in this realization we see a glimpse of our parents’ humanity because we’re all the same—solidified at the tender age of three, yet asked to continue growing taller and older and smarter.
When, at our core, we may still be small and young and unsure. We don’t have all the answers, yet when we have children they expect us to. so we put on our big girl or boy pants and try our best. At times getting it right, at times falling far shorter than we would have hoped.
Entertaining this idea that we’re all glorified toddlers, walking around in grown-up suits, how does our perspective of our parents and how they raised us change? For me, it has allowed gentleness and compassion to enter the space around my relationship with my parents. It has given me freedom to let go of my own expectations and disappointments. Because if we could imbue a three year old with adult wisdom, he would probably tell us to relax, and to treat each other kindly because we are fragile, even if we don’t appear to be from the outside on account of our size, wrinkles, and remote control vetoing powers.
Author: Angela Aiello
Photo: Hartwig HKD/Flickr
Editor: Jean Weiss