Parenting and Passing on Life Experience: Why Parents Give Advice to the Next Generation
If there were a contest for the one activity on the planet that parents try most often and fail at most regularly, I’d vote for “passing on life experience.” With all the research drug companies do, you would think they would come up with a pill, maybe an injection directly into the head, that would stifle the urge to give advice based on experience to the next generation. Now before I get mail on what Santayana said about “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” let’s at least question whether his strategy worked with his own kids. Nobody reports whether Santy, Jr. had a more productive life because he listened to the old man; of course, I would sure like to believe the kid did. Some distinctions would help.
First, I think parents can learn a great deal talking with other parents in their own generation. When people speak from their own experience to others in their own age group, credibility rises since the expectations and personal meaning are easier to understand. As worthy and helpful as this dialogue can be, most parents are reluctant to share with others for the essential reason that such disclosure is emotionally risky. One needs only to be zapped once by another’s judgmental remark to learn never to open up that way again.
Second, the very withdrawal parents do when hurt by a jerk’s comment is the principle to remember when speaking to our children. Life is tough enough without feeling Mike Ditka is providing color commentary on one’s choices. Most people nod to the truism that experience is the best teacher. I am beginning to think that experience is the ONLY teacher. The task for parents is to set up the conditions where the lessons taught by making mistakes are not catastrophically expensive for the child.
Third, parents can profit by occasionally examining what leads them to “hover.” The desire to protect the young is a fortunate human trait. Overprotection, though, can be as disabling as abandonment. Perhaps, it is a need to shield ourselves from loss that prompts us to overstep the bounds of helpfulness. One does not have to read the newspaper very much to see the heartache life dishes out. It is better, though, to take our own responsibility for healing and own our anxieties than to minimize our children’s opportunities for growth.
Fourth, I believe the best parents can hope for in raising the family is that the encouragement is present for both generations to talk about their concerns. The way for that kind of communication to happen is for the adults to take the initiative in talking about the feelings present in the urge to give advice. Specifically, I mean talking about those brief, meaningful events in our own life and what those experiences came to represent for us, whether or not the child feels these experiences have relevance for them. This kind of disclosure invites sharing and it is the sharing, I think, more than the lessons that matter in the long run of life.
Fifth, parents need to be gentle with themselves. This parental job requires making mistakes in order to find out what works for our children. In fact, living would be a mighty dreadful and dull event if everything we needed to know we knew when we were born. That is the charm of growing up for children and parents: learning what works.