This father just got his butt metaphorically kicked from here to Shanghai by his adult daughter. She just flat crawled him. A strafing run.
This father is perplexed. Sincerely incredulous. Dazed and confused. Hurt, too, but that seems unimportant to him for the moment, compared to his inability to really grasp what just happened and why.
The daughter’s outburst is all over the map. But she does swirl back several times to one particular indictment: “I was never good enough for you!”
She doesn’t speak of spankings, cruel punishments, exploitation or verbal degradation. She doesn’t say her father was overly stern or rigid, quick to anger or over-reactive. Her anguish and torment in the relationship points to more of a Greek tragedy than actual crimes.
As I listen to the man’s story, if anything I’m tending toward the opinion that his parental style and disciplinary expectations leaned more permissive than rigid.
The man gapes, blinking like those unsuspecting participants on ‘reality’ shows luring you into pranks and other theatre of the absurd. Like any minute now Allen Funt is going to step into my office and say, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”
“She says she was never good enough for me,” the man says, almost rehearsing it like an actor trying to gain ownership of a plot line. “Her grades weren’t good enough. She wasn’t a good enough athlete. She keeps saying she never measured up to my standards and expectations.”
This father doesn’t seem defensive. He doesn’t sound like so many parents who are in some combination of guilty denial and belligerent defiance in the wake of parental sins and shortcomings.
I see him as really stumped. And he’d like not to be stumped. He’d like to understand what happened between himself and his own blood daughter.
And then, as it often does, it happens. A patient will say something in passing. But the passing remark unwittingly shines a light on a truth that cuts to the heart of the matter. The man speaks, and in speaking, simultaneously gets himself off the hook and puts himself squarely on the hook.
He cringes a bit. Looks sheepish. Self-conscious. Like, the thought he’s about to articulate might call later for some apology. He shrugs, “The truth is, I didn’t think about her and her performance in life nearly as often as she seems to think. My most pressing thought was never ‘I wonder if [she] will ever make the Olympics.’ Apparently she had way more investment in what I thought of her than I was invested in what I thought of her.”
Ah. There it is, then. He said it, but he didn’t hear it.
Sometimes I think all I really do for a living is to listen acutely to people and then say back to them what I head – so they can hear themselves!
Somewhere in the Top Three Crucial Tasks of Childrearing is this immutable truth and thus necessary admonition:
Children cannot not idealize their mother and father. Children cannot not project onto parents near God-like attributes. And, typical of Stage One and Stage Two faith development (see James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, 1981), children cast themselves narcissistically into center stage. Their presumption is the only presumption they can make: I am the perpetual center of my parents’ world. They constantly think about me. I am the beginning and the end of how and why their life has meaning. Unless I meet [the standard of my parents’ expectations], I will never be loved.
The admonition? Never, ever forget that, whatever you think is transpiring between yourself and your child, always multiply it by 1,000. Then you’ll be close to ‘psychic weight’ your son or daughter is giving the interaction.
Put more simply, never, ever forget that children need to be admired. Beheld. Seen. Noticed. As author/ therapist James Redfield says, “Never have any more children than you can pay attention to.”
Ironically, the fastest way out of narcissistic stages of development is to behold your children in that stage. To give them the attention and encouragement they need to develop their own views, standards and judgments about the human being THEY want to be.
Somewhere between their birth and adulthood, my job is to move my children from their exaggerated concerns about what I think, and on to the only concern that matters: “My child, what do you think? What do you think of you?”
“I really want to know.”
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at skalas@ marinscope.com.StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)