I recently missed yet another Thanksgiving gathering with my American family, leaving me with the annual dose of longing for my favourite holiday (food and community, no presents, my idea of heaven!). I have occasionally hosted Thanksgiving here in Australia, but it’s just not the same. For some pretty self-evident reasons, there’s just no sense here of a national imaginary of gratitude that fourth weekend in November, and I’m sure the lack of a four-day weekend doesn’t help.
But Thanksgiving and this year’s many achievements and defeats has led me to think a bit more about what I’m grateful for, and who I should really thank. The list is pretty long, so I’m going to focus on my lovely parents, without whom I wouldn’t be me (for better or worse, eh?). So really, this is a post about parenting and a little filial gratitude.
What are good parents? People bang on about ‘good parents’ as though you’ll find a definition for them in the OED, and many (most?) worry a lot about it once they’re parents themselves. Although I’ve engaged in the rants and ulcers myself, I’m conscious that most responses are rather limited and judgmental, not to mention heavily class laden (and don’t get me started on the gender issues). For one person, being a good parent means keeping kids to a schedule, sending them to a renaissance variety of lessons, or reading with them every night. To another, it might be sending them to the best schools, teaching them to play cricket or making sure their uniform is clean. For some, it may simply be providing a home-cooked meal each night. For most, it’s a mixture of things, of course, and they vary a lot over the course of a child’s life.
Ask children what they think is good parenting and you’ll get a variety of responses as well, and ask those children when they’re adults what was good or bad about their upbringing and the answers will continue to evolve, or even simply to shift depending on their own levels of happiness each year or decade.
As I was thinking about what I appreciated about my parents, I decided to ask my three children (independently) what they think makes good parents. This will be a fascinating list for us to revisit periodically, I suspect. Here were their answers (in their words):
Good parents according Oscar (11yo)
sometimes saying ‘no’
Good parents according to Antigone (9yo)
listening to your children & deciding things as a family
teaching your children how you think things should be (A’s example is: ‘cook your own food’ instead of ‘buying all your food’ – no guesses whose values!)
notice what your children are good at
Good parents according to Atticus (6yo)
look after you well by keeping you safe
make good food
make sure you have a shower sometimes
tell you when you do something well
let you play how you want
make sure you go to bed on time
I was particularly struck by how most of what they thought was good parenting was about parents’ emotional engagement with children – whether we relate to them positively, acknowledge and applaud their achievements, and respect their autonomy. In fact, I asked Oscar what he thought about giving kids opportunities for lessons, and he said, ‘well, no, that’s just about the choice of the kid, really. I know people who just make their kids do swimming lessons and don’t listen to them not wanting to, so that’s not necessarily about good parenting.’
The point here for me is that even as young as my children are, their sense of ‘good parenting’ seems to be clearly about respect and kindness, rather than procedures or consumables. Obviously, any kind of ‘good’ parenting will involve some of the latter, but I was gobsmacked at the kids’ emphasis on and ability to articulate the former.
My own parents were/are unabashedly proud of us. They told us they loved us every day of our childhood, and we still finish phone conversations or part ways with ‘I love you’. They applauded our wins, and demanded we work hard for them. They let us self select our lessons, sport and the like, but then expected us to attend when they were on. Report cards from school were scrutinised and merit was rewarded – the mark for ‘effort’ was noted as was the actual grade, so an ‘A’ that came with only a ‘good’ for effort usually attracted a lecture about our work ethic.
Dad in particular would sit us down regularly to ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up. (In Grade 6 I chose doctor over lawyer, the only two jobs I could imagine one got after university, which is perhaps unsurprising as our generation was the first to attend.) He’d then discuss the ways we might achieve our goals, and ‘hard work’ always figured highly. My first job, typing for Dad, was the summer I was 12. I worked every summer after that, at first in the family businesses, and as soon as I had a driver’s licence (16 in the US then), for a local car wash. The family had plenty of money, but Dad wanted us to know how to work for our own.
They both taught us to believe in ourselves, and when we failed at something, reminded us of the old adage, ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’ Ma in particular taught us to roll with the punches – that woman is unflappable. And her unconditional love for all of us is breathtaking, and fundamental to my sense of well being. Nothing was too hard, no dream too big, no obstacle insurmountable. Dad was adamant on this point, and has always believed in the power of positive thinking, citing his own journey from a childhood experience of poverty to subsequent financial success.
I don’t want to debate the finer points of class and who has ‘real’ choices in this world, something I’m happy to continue doing elsewhere – it’s not the point of this story. The point here is that I’m glad my folks told us to believe in ourselves. I’m glad Dad taught us to fight for what we think is right, and against what we think is wrong. And I’m glad he asked us to think about what those things are.
There have been plenty of times when Dad and I have disagreed on what’s right or wrong in the world. You can imagine the consternation when I made a rather sudden shift to the other side of politics from the one with which I was raised during my third year of university. The shift would have been enough, but moving out of my share house to sleep in front of the library at UCSD with a few dozen others to protest the Gulf War in 1991 was a pretty significant manifestation of my newfound political activism for the left. And a rather shocking one for the daughter of a Republican.
It was admittedly a rocky start to our political divide, culminating in a lengthy interrogation after I dropped out of uni entirely. And the outcome? Dad thanked me for explaining my rationale, said he was pleased to better understand my motivations, and that he respected my decisions. That can’t have been easy, as a former Marine and police officer from Alabama watched his privileged offspring walk away from the opportunities he was providing me to work out how best to participate in the world. But letting me go, and respecting my right to make that choice, was one of many acts of what I think of as an Impressionist’s canvas of ‘good parenting’. It strengthened our relationship (trust will do that), and let me learn for myself within a year that I really wanted to go back to uni and finish my degree, which I obviously did (and kept going back…).
So what am I most grateful to my parents for? They taught us confidence, drive, responsibility and respect, and always made sure we knew we were loved. Ultimately, for me, these things resulted in resilience and self reliance with a strong sense of justice. I really appreciate these gifts from my parents.
Thanks, Ma & Dad. I only hope I give my kids as strong a foundation as you gave me.