Understanding Your Parents

We can blame, accuse, or praise our parents. These acts come to many of us with ease. A more complicated task is to understand them.

An old friend told the following story. His mother was waiting for a baby sitter when he was little. Like all tots, he was attached and needed the security of mom’s nearness.

Having nothing better to do, she decided to hide behind a sofa. No warning was given to her son, no announcement she’d be playing a game of hide-and-seek.

When he called out, she didn’t answer. He ran around the apartment looking. The boy’s search turned into a frenzy. Soon came his screaming breakdown into tears.

Mom jumped out laughing. As my buddy asked me many years later, “What was she thinking?”

Here are some suggestions to help you understand your own parents: what they do, what they don’t, what they think, and how their particular brand of humanity came about:

  • Talk to your grandparents if you still can. Try to find out how they raised their children. Ask them to remember what their small ones were like before and after school arrived in their lives. Observe how these elders connect with their offspring today.
  • Look at old family photos. Ask your folks about them. Who are the unrecognized friends and relatives? What became of the relationships with them?
  • Are the people in the photos happy? If you are captured there by the camera, what was your mood? Was the youthful version of those who parented you remarkably more attractive before time’s transformation? What effect might the change have had?
  • Uncles and aunts are sometimes essential sources of illumination.
  • If you have children of your own, watch how mom and dad interact with them. People do alter, but not everyone does. Their behavior is the closest visible example now available of how they brought you up.
  • One by one, do life history interviews if your father or mother cooperates. Some oldsters will be flattered; others will say no. The reason for their choice might be enlightening.
  • Learn the background of their early years: the places, neighborhoods, and economic circumstances that impacted them. Did they change residences and schools often? With what consequences?
  • Find out about significant life events, the downs and ups of love, vocation, and health. How did they respond?
  • Ask about religion, including movement toward or away from the faith. Do they expect you to “believe” as they do? What values do they hold?
  • How do your caregivers talk about their progenitors? Look at their faces for evidence of emotion. Listen to phone calls between them and your grandparents.

  • Attitudes toward money, status, and material things are useful to know.
  • Friends of the family can supply relevant information if they offer you a factual account. Do your parents maintain long-lasting friendships? Why or why not? When buddies depart or are banished, who gets blamed? Do they make new friends?
  • Research the educational and employment time-line of mom and dad. Did they achieve what they hoped for? How do they explain their success or failure? Do they live to work or work to live?
  • If your folks hold racial, ethnic, or religious biases, attempt to uncover the origin of such beliefs. How do you explain their embrace of diversity or its absence?
  • Do you remind either one of somebody from their past? Were feelings toward those individuals transferred to you because of your likeness? Transference grows not only in a therapist’s office.
  • How do your begetters get along with each other? Who is in charge? Does one criticize the other in your presence or privately express spousal grievances to you? Did you ever occupy the role of a confidant or consoler? Was the keeping of secrets required? Was your well-being considered when they overshared?

  • Do mother and father accept responsibility for their actions? How affectionate are they, how distant?
  • Might they play favorites among their children? Are the ones who gave you life reliable and honest? Do they display preferences among their grandkids? Why?
  • How do these guardians deal with their physical issues, as well as illnesses or injuries you have?
  • In what ways are you like those who cared for you? Don’t say there are no similarities, there always are.

Consider this a start. The understanding of another (not to mention yourself), comes from thinking like a therapist. I’ve offered you questions as a launching pad for your inquiry.

Your understanding will change as life proceeds. Until you reach the stage another person passed through, you lack the knowledge such passage provides.

Attaining a complete grasp of the nature of any life is never achieved in full. In the meantime, remember to live not just a good life, but one enriched by experiences. The clock on your time here is always in motion.

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The above images in order: 1. Willem de Kooning, Untitled XI, 1975. 2. Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, Summer 1909. 3. Paul Klee, Blossoming. Jackson Pollock, one of his untitled, numbered paintings.