A few days before Father’s Day, I was reflecting on the qualities I most appreciated in my own father, who is now 81. What most strongly came to mind was the way, throughout my life, he has given me space just to be myself, without criticism, control-moves, or much intrusion from his own agenda. In a card to him I wrote:
“The poet Ranier Maria Rilke once said, “I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.” Here we are, in two different cities, thinking of each other and their particular qualities, seeing each other from time to time, and speaking by phone and hearing a few details. But undergirding the relationship is this sense of respect for the solitude and ultimate unknowingness of each other. There is something in that respect that does not feel like aloofness — it feels like love, like the ultimate kindness, because it asks for nothing in return, and lets me rest in the knowing that being myself is all I need to be.”
Sometimes the best thing we can give our children is the kindness of respectful space. Some situations call for solace or specific advice, or humor and perspective when we lose our own. But protecting the solitude of the other, as Rilke described, is a gift that is a deep expression of love. Ask one of the many people who experience their parents as emotionally intrusive. The parents’ own needs seem to be what is most prominent in motivating interactions. This does not feel loving, and it tends to create defensiveness and distance.
Choosing the Right Words
Admittedly, respectfully giving space to our children, while maintaining a loving connection, is a difficult and mature thing to do. It is also a gift from a parent that is seldom talked about. Perhaps because it might seem on the surface to be the absence of something — the moments when the parent does not reach out, does not respond.
Now that my son is a young adult and my primary task as a parent is to let go, I am aware of how challenging it is to practice this kind of restraint. I worry about him, as every parent does, but I put a lot of work into choosing my words. Often, I just stick with, “I love you.”
It isn’t just what we say or don’t say, however, that conveys love and respect for our children —it is also how we perceive them. Stephen R. Covey wrote about the power of parents’ perceptions of their children in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change”. He and his wife were very concerned about one of their children, a son who was doing poorly in school and was a late developer physically.
Covey writes, “No matter how we worked on our attitude and behavior, our efforts were ineffective because, despite our actions and our words, what we really communicated to him was, ‘You aren’t capable. You have to be protected.’ We began to realize that if we wanted to change the situation, we first had to change ourselves. And to change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.”
Perceiving without Judgment
He went on to describe how he and his wife worked to address their own thinking. “Instead of trying to change him, we tried to stand apart — to separate us from him — and to sense his identity, individuality, separateness, and worth.” Covey writes that gradually, the child “began to feel a quiet confidence and affirmed himself. He began to blossom, at his own pace and speed.”
I read this story many years ago, and it has had a strong influence on me as a parent. Whenever I find myself excessively worried about my son I try to step back and ask, “How am I viewing him? Is this accurate? Is this a loving way that I am holding him in my thoughts? Is this helpful?”
Some of us have the fortune of the example of wise parents; others of us find our way solely through personal exploration and hard work. But it is a vital task of parenting to be continually mindful of our own perceptions and how they color our thoughts and actions, to not assume that everything we think and feel about our children needs to be acted on. When we can practice this kind of discernment, we give our children room to blossom, grow, and discover themselves, while resting in the knowing that they are unconditionally loved.
Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessonsin Personal Change. New York: Fireside, 1990. 19-20.
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