Parents demystified:  a guide for children

This article was first published in the Island Word in the fall of 2009. 

Our younger children, adopted last year, seem at times a little bewildered on the subject of parents. Dropped into a permanent family at ages 8 and 11, they experienced a tremendous change in circumstances—not the first in their young lives. From the perspective of pre-teens, we find ourselves a pretty complicated subject—perfectly logical one minute, then spurting questions about improbable events (“Have you left your jacket at school?” “Are you going to follow so-and-so into trouble at school?”) the next. Where, they ask, do we get such notions? Do we go around worrying about all the things that could go wrong with their upbringing? And what’s with the physical touch thing—what are we always pulling them toward us, ruffling our hair, sitting close to them?

So we have begun preparing a primer on how to handle having parents. We thought this might be of interest to others, including children with “normal parents” (come on, we know you’re out there somewhere), who might even write in with tips of their own. This month, we are sharing the beginnings of this project with our readers.

Why do children need parents, anyway? This is a very good question, and children have been asking it since families began. (When was that, you ask? Not as far back as dinosaurs, but definitely before wholly mammoths.) Parents have three big jobs. First, they must keep the children alive. They must provide food, shelter, warmth, and help for sicknesses and injuries. This may not seem like a big deal, but sometimes they are very hard to get. Having parents means that children can spend more time learning and playing, and less time worrying about catching dinner and setting up camp every night.

Second, parents need to nurture the child to become the best that they can be—to learn, to try new things, to find what they might excel at or find joy in doing. Because each child is different, the parents need to pay attention to, and honor, the particular person that you are. You can help them in this by telling them about yourself, trying out many things, and sharing the ones that make you happy.

Third, parents need to teach children how to fit as useful community members: how to be polite, work hard, smell nice and look tidy. Morals, compassion, responsibility, and self-control also fit in here, as do the 3 R’s of readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic. They may get some help with formal education, but parents get children up in the morning and see that they get to school on time and ready to learn. Parents share with children their faith, their values, their traditions, and their way of living a life worth respecting.

These three things: surviving, becoming your best self, and fitting into the community. don’t always go together easily. What if your best self is a pirate, a misunderstood artist, or a would-be hockey player with bad knees? Parents have to deal with that. They may not always understand or be proud of you, but, if you give them a little bit of time, they will always come around to acceptance, because they have to love you. It’s built in.

What’s with all the touching? Why do parents always want to hug me, kiss me, or fix my hair? Families touch. It’s part of how we become close to one another. Dogs, cats, monkeys and people all bond with their offspring through touching. Be grateful if they don’t go through your hair every day, looking for fleas to eat. Monkeys do that.

If you, the child, find it hard to be touched in some ways, you might suggest an alternative kind of touch that feels better. If hugging doesn’t feel good, you could sit next to one another on a porch swing, or exchange foot massages. We know some children whose parents spell words on their backs with their fingers, as a guessing game. Some love to have their hair brushed, and others hate this above all else. Whatever works, find time to let your parents do it. They will be less cranky, and more understanding about that missed homework assignment if you offer them this happiness.

PS. Parents like to smell you, too. So make sure those feet smell good.

Why are parents so curious? Do they really want to know my every thought? It may seem so, but they don’t really want to hear every single thing that goes through your head. They just want know you very, very well. They especially want to trust you. But how can they trust you if they don’t know you? So they ask questions. Lots of questions.

Here is a really big hint for dealing with parents’ curiosity: Tell them stuff you don’t mind them knowing, before they ask for it. If you tell it before they ask it, it’s worth extra points—you are in charge of the conversation, and they will ask you less.

A second hint is this: tell them the truth. You might get by with lying to them sometimes, but parents really great BS detection systems. Once they catch you in a fib or a lie, they move back their trust-o-meter a few notches, and they start asking even more questions.

If it’s freedom and privacy you want, then tell the parents truthful things, often, before they ask.

Why is it so hard to keep parents happy? Won’t they ever just think I’m good enough as I am? This is probably the most common problem with parents: on average they keep up the child-improvement project until about age 40, even though most children stop listening somewhere between 13 and 20.. A few stop giving “helpful advice” as soon as the kids leave home. Others keep trying until death, and then, when they are no longer there to appreciate it, the children change and get everything right. It’s really the luck of the draw which kind you get.

Parents have hopes and dreams for their children. They take your success personally. They probably shouldn’t: it isn’t the parents who study for those exams or sweat through those athletic practices. But, if you are honest, there is usually a parent behind the scenes, helping. They drive you to practices, sit and read with you, amd make sure you eat well. They invest in you—can they help it if they have high hopes? And would you really want them not to have high hopes?

If you really feel oppressed by your parents’ expectations, bring it up when nobody is feeling angry and everybody can be as calm as possible. Maybe by talking, you can come to some shared high hopes. Then you will be on the same team, cheering for improvements.

If all else fails, remember what we said about becoming your best self. They may not be thrilled, but if your best self is a pirate with bad knees, a studio full of abstract paintings and the manners of a monkey, well, they will eventually accept and love that about you. They have to.

Just how long do I have to live with these people? That depends. Parents can be a great source of free (or cheap) shelter and food through university and beyond, if you treat them well! Just give them a daily hug, tell them what’s on your mind lately, keep your stuff reasonably tidy and stay out of the kind of trouble that you know would be bad for you, anyway. If you cook occasionally and clean the kitchen, they will be really, really nice to you in return.

Sounds easy, right? Actually, most people find that it gets difficult with age. One should probably move out at age thirty or when the folks stop buying the pizza, whichever comes first.

Why can’t my parents be cooler, less embarrassing, and more normal? Because they are real parents. Cool, normal parents are actually TV characters. Some are even cartoons (We, too, are in love with Marge Simpson). In real life, everybody is embarrassed of their parents, who were once embarrassed of their parents, and back and back through history.

Embarassing parents do, however, make for great comic inspiration. Take notes—you can use the material someday for your stand-up routine, or your graphic novel. Without dysfunctional families, there would be no great art.

This is so complicated! What else do I need to know? Every parent is different. One likes back rubs, quiet alone times and patchouli. Another will be delighted to share your new Rolling Stones album. You may even be living with a secretly frustrated hockey-star-wanna-be pirate/artist who longs to show you his abstracts in honor of the 2010 Olympics; who knows? The only way to find out is to ask them questions about themselves. Ask about their childhood, their school friends, their heroes, and the dreams they had for their lives. If you have grandparents, you have access to the mother-lode of insider information on your parents. Keep your eyes and your ears open, and ask for help when you need it.

But do I really have to love them? Parents and children are a bit of a grab bag affair: we don’t get to choose one another, and most of us are flawed in some ways. Those who are perfect almost never get family members that measure up: perfect parents can raise difficult children, and perfect children can get difficult parents. Of this we are sure: your parents began with good intentions. They really want to do a good job.

We can’t always validate our parents’ efforts by turning out spectacular, but we can try to show them some kindnesses along the way. Smile at them. Hug them. Claim them in public. Show them, and tell them, that they are, if not the center of your universe, then at least the next couple of planets out in your solar system. Do a little of this every day, and watch the results. Chances are, they will shine.

Will you love them? Who knows? These things tend to take us by surprise when we least expect it. For now, just keep the door open, and try to create a space—through kindness, honesty, touch, and curiousity–that love might choose to enter.