My 20-something grandson, a recent college graduate working in the theatre world, talked enthusiastically about his work on the production of a play by a new playwright. Dealing with the theme of racial conflict, the story involved an interracial marriage and the conflict between mother and daughter. My grandson criticized most issue plays for lecturing the audience and inducing guilt whereas this play strives toward an understanding of both points of view.
Specifically, in the play a white mother is in conflict with her black daughter about the girl’s hair style. My young theatre critic related that the playwright has focused on the people rather than the issue so that instead of feeling angry at the mother you understand that she really is trying to be supportive of her daughter. It is her own different life experience that makes her unable to understand how to be successful.
In our conversation, I suggested that this dilemma might apply more generally to parent-child relationships even without the added racial issue. My grandson reacted with interest to this idea, saying he thought I would really like this play — seeming to suggest that he liked my broader interpretation. As a young person not that far removed — if at all — from similar parent/child conflicts this reading of the play seemed to ring a bell.
It was interesting to hear a young person reacting positively to a more compassionate understanding of a parent’s own limitations in trying to be helpful to a child. It brought to mind the report of my granddaughter’s CIT experience in which she was impressed by her exposure to the adult (authority) side of things. Moving from a child’s to an adult’s point of view is a major transition in the maturational process. Understanding that a different — and longer — life experience is part of a parent’s point of view is still another step in that process.
A wise teacher said that our children were entitled to make their own mistakes, just as we did. This is difficult advice to follow as a parent. We would like our children to learn from our mistakes and so avoid whatever pain or difficulty we encountered in making them. This turns out to be unrealistic for several reasons. Part of growing up entails pushing back against your parents’ ideas both as a way of becoming a separate individual and of developing confidence in your own ideas.
Also, our children always grow up in a world different in ways from our own, leading to the accusation that we don’t understand them. And often, we don’t, coming from a different point in life and failing to identify the developmental and life factors from which our children are operating. Yet as parents, we have the responsibility of keeping them safe and identifying behavior that may need some limitations.
It was interesting to hear a young person’s resentment about being made to feel guilty in the service of advancing a point of view. As parents, we are often made to feel guilty about the way we handle our children and are blamed for our children’s behavior. Children, at a certain point in development, also feel guilty when told they have done a bad thing. But more often their reaction is to parental criticism and the loss of parental approval.
The opposing needs or points of view that create conflict are usually fraught with emotion making hearing the other side difficult. Hopefully, having greater maturity, it falls to us as parents to hear our children’s point of view. As they develop, they may be able to hear ours.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.