Parenting Through the Lens of a Troubled Childhood

On this rainy, gray Memorial Day Monday, I find myself wondering if my kids really understand what this day represents. They have only known safety and freedom. For that matter, they have only known emotional security, warm safe beds at night, bellies full of plenty to eat. 

Last week, I saw a Mom in my clinic who was wondering whether the life she has made for her kids is so safe and protected that the kids won’t understand what’s it’s like to struggle. 

“My life was hard when I was a kid,” she said. “We had nothing. We went hungry a lot. My Dad was drunk and Mom was depressed. We were scared most of the time. Before I was old enough to start school, I had to help take care of my younger siblings. When I was twelve, I had to babysit and give what little money I earned to the family for food. Those experiences made me compassionate and hard working. Now I’m raising children who have never been without anything. Our home is comfortable, and there is always enough food, love, and fun. They focus on school and soccer and cheer. I worry that they will be spoiled and selfish, because they have never struggled. But what do I do? Starve them to make them grateful for their meals? Of course not…”

Good parents, working in therapy to heal the wounds of their own impoverished and/or dysfunctional childhoods, realize they have no blueprint for raising kids in a supportive, healthy environment. How does a parent offer her children a protected space for childhood, and manage to instill the hard won values that sprung out of her own difficult early life? 

We made a list together in the session of how she was trying to teach her kids the important lessens she feared they would miss:

Teaching Empathy
From the time they were small, I would get down at eye level and say things like, “How do you think Ada feels when you take her toy? I think she feels sad.”

Modeling Compassion
We visit my Dad and some of the other residents on the Alzheimer’s floor at the nursing home. We make them crafts and sit with the ones who don’t have family visiting.

Telling the Stories
I always tried to tell my kids the truth about my life. I told them we were poor, the Grandpop had a drinking problem, and that’s probably why his memory left him. I told them what it was like to have to be a grownup so young. 

Asking Kids to Earn It
Other than Christmas and birthdays, I don’t give my kids a lot of material things. I have decided that food, clothing, shelter, and emotional security are enough. If they want more toys, they can mow lawns and rake leaves for the money.

Resisting the Urge to Rescue
I try to let them clean up their own messes. If they break something, they need to fix it or pay for it. I want them to be responsible adults later, so I try to hold them to that standard now. 

Posted on May 30, 2016 .