Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. I had a week off this week, so I’ve decided to rerun a column from 2010 that I really liked, about the difference between a healthy family and a perfect family.
I have incredible vision. I can see things that nobody else in my family can. If clean, folded laundry is sitting on the stairs, waiting to be transported into the owners’ rooms, I am the only person residing in our home who can detect that laundry. If there are dishes in the upstairs hall, waiting to be transported into the kitchen and then placed into our very convenient dishwasher, I am also the only person whose eyes pick up on the presence of these glasses and plates. My children missed that genetic trait, as my husband apparently also lacks it.
I find it easy to see the things that my kids miss, and if you’re a parent, you probably can name a ton of things your kids do that bug you, too. And because we’re the parents, it’s easy to order our kids around to fix these flaws. We’re louder, we’re bigger, and we control the chocolate. What’s harder is allowing our kids the freedom, with respect, to call us on things that we do wrong.
In our house, everybody knows my biggest fault. When I’m stressed, I believe it’s my God-given right to make sure that everybody is stressed right along with me. I take that “if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” saying to ridiculous extremes, interpreting every smile as an affront to me if my blood pressure happens to be elevated. In my more lucid moments, I allow everyone to laugh with me about this. And that makes my dysfunctional behaviour, when it occurs, a little easier to take.
I don’t think perfect families exist, but I think healthy families do. And that’s one of the key criteria of a healthy family: being able to speak the truth. The real test of a healthy family doesn’t lie in parents’ 20/20 vision, but in whether parents help their children develop good vision, too. Sure we notice the things they do wrong, but do we let them acknowledge that we, their parents, aren’t perfect, either? Unfortunately, many families like to maintain the illusion of perfection, even if that means denying the truth.
In families where children aren’t allowed to notice flaws, it’s not as if the kids suddenly grow blind to them. They’re just not allowed to do anything about it, or parents subject them to the silent treatment, yell at them or belittle them. Most kids, when experiencing this kind of rejection, run in the other direction, deciding to never question their parents again. They want to be loved, and if being loved means not noticing when others are wrong, then that’s what they’ll do.
Children in families like these grow up learning not to trust their own instincts. To make it even worse, they often have very conflicting feelings about their parents which can never really be resolved, because until you can admit that your parents did wrong, you can’t forgive them for that wrong.
That’s why we need to let our kids work on their vision. They need to be allowed not just to see our imperfections, but also to name them. Of course kids still need to respect us and defer to our authority, which is legitimate. You are the parent, not the best friend. But to imagine that kids will idolize us and never notice anything wrong is doing them a grave disservice. It’s asking them to pretend the world is different from the way it actually is. It’s raising our kids to be liars. And as the old saying goes, it is the truth that sets us free. Even if the truth hurts.
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