Parents Visiting, Obligation or Genuine Interest?

My husband and I grew up with a sense of obligation to be with our parents. It is interesting that neither of us was ever able to move very far beyond that. So it came as a surprise when I asked my son how he felt when we visited him in April and he said he was excited. I had to ask him twice because my own experience contaminated his response and I found myself in disbelief.

What do I attribute these differences to? Growing up in the 1950’s vs. the mid 1980’s? With my in-laws there was pervasive guilt and an atmosphere of never doing enough to please them. With my parents there was so little contact with other people it seemed to be a requirement to remind them of the larger world in which they lived. There was a lack of genuine conversation and an absence of curiosity about who we’d evolved to be. The relationship with parents seemed to be about them and their expectations. I remember my Mom saying many years ago “Don’t you think you’ve been enough places?” so I stopped telling her because her judgement erased any possibility of fun in sharing.

I experienced parallel monologues when we would visit parents. So many parents really only want agreement. I think the key is being open to disagreement and authentic differences. So many couples begin with real dialogue when they’re in love. Then they lose track of themselves as a couple and they disintegrate into parallel monologues. Think how rare it is to witness real dialogue in relationships. Real dialogue means you are open to change and being influenced by another’s opinion. Dialogue is to be available to another person’s point of view combined with a willingness to learn something new. Dialogue can only happen in an atmosphere of respect. Respect is more important in relationships than love because there is room for dislikes. Love in the 1950’s often meant a stranglehold of expectations.

I see a lot of angry teens and their parents. Often, I suggest they ask their kids to lunch on several Saturdays. During lunch they should put their fingers over their mouths so they aren’t so quick to interrupt with their repetitive point of view. Time with our parents always seemed like an opportunity to persuade us about their point of view. In contrast, I spent a lot of lunches listening and appreciating our differences.

I believe the weight of obligation is directly connected to a lack of respect for differences. Do our kids need to be mini versions of ourselves? If parents can genuinely be curious and interested in the differences there will be more substance and infrastructure to build a relationship upon.

I have a deep and abiding belief that mistakes are crucial to living a life well. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Why parents want to “save” their kids from their mistakes is puzzling. Life is all about choices and taking risks. Certainly anyone learns more from mistakes than success. Now, it’s their turn and it will be so interesting to see where their choices and life’s journey will take them. It’s not my kids job to fulfill me. They don’t need my approval, only my love.barbara_billingsley

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