Thursday, February 24, 2011

Forget Big Brother; Your Children Are Most Likely Watching You

Parental estrangement is a miserable topic to be sure, but unfortunately for some, it is a common part of family life. Several weeks ago, I planned to blog about this topic but then I came across a story that made me re-focus my thinking which I described in my monthly Home News Tribune column.

Be sure to read Dr. Woolverton's email to me (below)

Frederick Woolverton’s essay on parental estrangement, The Most Hated Son in the New York Times Magazine, had a deeper message which became apparent to me. In it, he describes his estrangement from his aging mother (now 89) and his efforts to improve their relationship after three decades of silence “before it was too late.”

Woolverton states, “We’d been estranged since I was nineteen, when I made harsh, yet true, statements about the horrors of living with her at the custody trial for my younger sister. My family’s unstated code had been that nobody was allowed to reveal my mother’s alcoholism. She was enraged that I broke the rules of secrecy.” I can only imagine what went through Woolverton’s mind before he testified against his own mother, knowing that she may never speak to him again as a result of his testimony.

What particularly caught my attention in his essay was when Woolverton described a recent trip he took with his daughter to visit his mother and described, “My mother had cut off all my siblings over the years, and my brothers and sister were shocked that I even went to see her, especially because she always hated me the most — even before the divorce trial. I was the smallest, weak and sick as an infant. She once screamed that she’d wanted to let me die, like an injured animal. Did I forgive her? Absolutely not. Would I protect her now, if she needed anything? Yes. On the ride home, my daughter said what my own mother couldn’t: You are a good son.”

In my opinion, that last sentence says a world about parental role modeling. We have all heard people say that their children hear and see everything, or that a particular incident will be permanently embossed on their child’s memory.
But what I think is more important than what a child retains from a singular event, is what she retains from the on-going series of events known as daily family life. As parents, we have opportunities every single day to be good role models, or the opposite. When we make a mistake, we need to admit it, apologize for it and our child will benefit from that experience exponentially. When you least expect it, they will hear you or see you doing something. This applies to both good and bad role modeling.

Woolverton regretted his estrangement from his mother and attempted to make amends. The unexpected byproduct of bringing his daughter along was what his daughter witnessed and the enduring impression it left. He can be comforted by the fact that he likely won’t be transmitting estrangement to future generations by showing his children that even an all but lost relationship, deserves sincere effort and determination.

Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is the author of Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley 2011) and is a Marriage Therapist in Highland Park. Please respond to this column via his website

Dr. Singer,
I read your piece on my visit to my mother and appreciated your understanding and description of my daughter's unexpected part in that visit. What you wrote seemed insightful and very accurate, thank you.

Frederick Woolverton, Ph. D.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The American Dream That Beckons Your Teen; Let It Wait

Bill Doherty, who I cite in this blog every chance I get, raises some terrific questions in his Psychology Today essay on Abby Sunderland, the teenager who sailed around the world. He makes some crucial points about the role of modern parents in how they give guidance and supervision to their children.

When the American dream is calling your child, how do you say no?
How have we allowed our adolescents to become adults and our children to become adolescents?
And how do parents lose their moorings when children profess a dream of competitive success?

Doherty described his own family this way: “Back in the ancient 1980s, before the age of the super child, when my son asked to add a second sport to his schedule, we said sure, if you want to drop the first one. We were not yet burdened by the cultural norm that every child is a bundle of undiscovered potential that parents are responsible to uncover and develop, no matter the cost.

Of course, the young have always had dreams, but we used to think that they should grow up before deciding on which dreams to pursue as part of an adult life. From Abby’s blog: "It has been my dream since I was 13 years old and began single-handing, to one day sail solo around the world. I am 16 years old and this blog will contain the story of my attempt to become the world's youngest solo circumnavigator.” Note the contemporary twist on the familiar round-the-world travel dream: it's to be solo and the youngest in history.

We now know that the human brain does not fully mature until around age 25 on average; that means Abby has 9 years of brain development to look forward to. For now, it's the job of parents to provide the missing prefrontal cortex for their offspring.

Abby's father said: "Sailing and life in general is dangerous. Teenagers drive cars. Does that mean teenagers shouldn't drive a car?” When a parent of a minor child compares a year of solo sailing around the world, including in the South Pacific hurricane season, to driving a car in the neighborhood, it sounds delusional to outsiders. But it feels sane to parents who have been seduced by today's culture of competitive childhood where the dreams of youth distort the judgment of adults. Behind every super child is a supportive but ultimately wimpy parent.

Doherty wisely concludes: “The antidote is simple: let high-achieving children be children first, with time to grow up, and in the meantime let parents be the adults in the family.”

I encourage you to read Doherty’s entire piece by clicking here