Monday, January 21, 2008

All Grown Up: Always, Never, It Depends

Sunday's post was crafted from a post over at The Archer Pelican and my comment to it. Seems only appropriate to pair it, a day later, with an inversion of that genesis: a full post crafted from Phil's comment here. Confused yet? Simply put, Phil posted a long and thoughtful comment here--too long and thoughtful to let languish in the comments bin, where those who read this blog by e-mail subscription might miss it. Further, it invites an equally thoughtful answer, because it touches on a phenomenon I've given considerable thought over the years.

So, to open, here is Phil's comment from yesterday (I should also point out that Phil, sojourning in Mexico for the next few months, expands on his experiences there over at his own place, and if yesterday's post is any indication, I for one am looking forward to both the experiences he relates and to the deeper reflections they inspire):

Greetings from Merida MX, where I'm spending my first evening at the ultra-cheap apartment that will be "home" for the next few weeks. For the five previous evenings, I've been at the Nomadas Hostel -- in the company of people from ~12 different countries, ages 20 to 65.

A German 40-something commented that the 20-somethings touring the world for two months at 3 days per stop are simply taking an intensive course on how to misunderstand many different cultures. She may be right. But they are learning other things, too. Sometimes on their parents' dime (or Euro), sometimes on their own.

But to return to your original subject: two nights ago I was walking with two 60-something American women who were telling me about their own prosperous but troubled childhoods. The former deb from Philadelphia lived her entire childhood and much of her grown life living by her mother's rules and hating it. She knew she didn't want to raise her children in the same way, but some of it still happened. She's close now to one of her 40-something kids, but not to the other.

The Junior Leaguer's daughter from Texas never played by her mother's rules, though she inherited her mother's love for alcohol. Her only childhood memories of her mother's gentleness were from the times she was sick. Her mother would stroke her hair and give her some comfort and attention. Decades later when the mother was nearly dead, suffering from dementia and OCD/anxiety, the daughter remembered her childhood comforts and did the same for her mother -- stroking her hair and speaking gently. In those moments of the daughter's loving, the mother had her own few moments of lucidity and calm. "Good," she said. "Nice."

As for the kind daughter's own girls, they are also in their 40s, and are generally doing alright. All three generations have had their struggles with alcohol and drugs. But one thing different is that the younger two generations love each other actively and much, with few rules except for the one that says, "we will always hope for each other's good welfare."

When do we start seeing our children and their cohort as adults (and perhaps as "fellow humans")? Is it when we watch them acting like adults with each other? Or is it when we expect them to act like adults for us? Or maybe when we finally *let* them act like adults with us?

Working in mid-sized engineering firms throughout my 20s, I almost never worked with anyone younger than I who was also smarter and/or more knowledgeable. In my late 30s, I finally started meeting a lot of workmates in their late 20s or early 30s who actually had plenty of content-area knowledge (and sometimes also just plain brainpower) exceeding my own. It was honestly fun to start leaning on them for expertise.

Soon enough, it's going to start happening with my kids' friends. I'm glad to say that I'm looking forward to the change, not dreading it.

Oh, and to remember the other theme of the original post, I will do my best to hint nicely to the lucky kids just how good a job their parents have done. And I will do my best to be helpful to the kids whose parents aren't doing so well.
The paragraph I want to concentrate on is that fourth one up and that very interesting question: "When do we start seeing our children and their cohort as adults (and perhaps as 'fellow humans')?" It's a good question, when it has to be asked. The ideal answer may well be, "Always, never, and it depends."


Always, because from infancy, my daughters' mother and I have tried to speak to our children as adults. "Because I said so," has not been in our repertoire. More than once, I expect, my children have probably wished it had been. That sort of arbitrary (on the surface) invocation of parental authority is easier to rebel against than the sort of careful reasoning and explanation my daughters were likely to encounter. When the youngest repeatedly questioned our unwavering prohibition of either child ever climbing onto a trampoline without us present (and once ignored that prohibition, proving that "the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice" by bouncing into view over her friend's backyard fence just as her mother happened to be stopped at a light on the other side of said fence), my answer was to print more information from the internet on the dangers of trampolines than any eight-year-old should really be subjected to. Really, "because we said so," probably would have been sufficient.

They are likely, those young charges, if they read this, to object that the sarcasm with which they were sometimes reminded of undone chores or rules of common civility violated was hardly "treating them like adults." And yet, it was. The employment of sarcasm assumes that the person spoken to knows and understands the issues at hand. Sarcasm is lost on the uninformed or uncomprehending. So, that I ever employed sarcasm was really a sign that I credited them with knowing better in the first place. Still, it's a mode of address I wish I'd used less often on the whole.

Nor can I remember there ever being a time when they were relegated to a "kid's table." From the days of the high chair on, they not only ate at the table when we had guests, but they were not discouraged from joining the conversation. The result was that, more than once, they earned the incredulity of some adults by the facility with which they could carry on an "adult" conversation. As those dinner guests were, more often than not, fellow professors, my oldest daughter, now in her first year of college, is wonderfully unintimidated by her teachers.

Now, more than ever, I converse with my daughters in this way, about so many things that my parents never discussed with me. I don't expect them to treat the things I say with the same veneration as the words of Moses just returned from the mount. But, I do want them to have a starting point for a deeper perception of many things. There are some lessons that must be learned "the hard way," but there are many I think I might have been spared if my own parents had been more open with me about some of their mistakes and regrets. If, by being carefully honest with my children, I can spare them some of those pains in their own lives, then I feel I owe them that.


And yet, our children will always be our children, however mature they may be in intellect or age. And though we may treat them as adults, and we may recognize that their burdens and concerns are not so much unlike our own, still, there is within us (I hope) that feeling of obligation to shield and nurture. That they may no longer need nor want such protection is beside the point. And this eternal stewardship that bears no relation to chronological age is something they may never understand . . . until they have children of their own.

It Depends

And that brings me to the balance point where Phil's question really seeded the clouds of memory. As important a transformation as seeing our children as adults is, equally important is that day when they see us as human as well, not as infallible nor supremely confident nor fearless nor asexual, but simply human--struggling from day to day to get it right just like them, and as worried about what our children think of us as they are about what we think of them.

In judging the threshold of that awareness, I have nothing but my own perception of my own father and mother to go on. The key, I think, may be our arrival at an age that matches our first real memories of our own parents. And more important than reaching that age may be reaching it with awareness of reaching it. I was 29 when my oldest daughter was born--two years older than my father was when I entered this world. But I have no memory of him at that age. It wasn't until my early thirties, when I could remember my father in his own early to mid thirties, that I began, not infrequently, to perform a little mental exercise. I began to compare my own experiences and emotions to his, and to try to project myself into his grown up place in those memories whose neural storage units were formed in that child's mind. How would I feel, now, at this age which he was then, in that circumstance.

It has always been an interesting exercise, and rewarding. Each time, it has allowed me to see my father in new ways, to understand that this larger than life figure whom I had (and still do) idolized in so many ways was really just a man after all. That he was an exceptional man, I never lost sight of, but just how exceptional became all the more clear as I began to reach milestones in my own age that also marked milestones in his.

Around the age of 35, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be the principal creator and Chief of a volunteer fire department and rescue squad that really set the bar for such an organization, in our county and beyond. I could remember the arrival of the first pumper, the celebration around it, parked for the afternoon under the century-old pecan tree in our back yard. I remember thinking (as an adult looking back) what a huge responsibility he had, and how well he executed it. I was filled with even more admiration for his skills as a diplomat, his ability to lead without alienating and without letting the power of being in a leadership position go to his head.

Some five years ago, I was equally conscious of reaching the age my father was when my mother left our home. A couple years after that, during a Parent's Weekend at the college where I taught, I remembered that I was the age then that he had been when he came out for my own Parent's Weekend. He had seemed old then. He was, after all, my father. But, looking back, and thinking, He was then the age I am now, I could only think how young he was.

The point of all this, as the subtitle implies, is it depends. The age at which we can begin to think of our own parents as real people (if the operative mechanism I propose is really the key to such a thing) may depend, not on our age, but on the age they were when we came into this world. If that holds, then maybe the converse is true. Our ability to think of our own children as adults may depend, somewhat, on our age when they were born.

Then again, I don't really think so. At any age they are, we have already been that age, and with a little effort, we can remember how grown up we always thought we were. If we work at it, that's an exercise that can help us see both ourselves and them more clearly.

When do we begin to see them as adults? Always, never, it depends. The more we do though, the more I expect they will return the favor and see us, not just as "rents," but as people--the unique people linked to them in this lifetime by blood and by a love that no words can ever really explain.