One day, when I was a teenager, my mom and I were driving down the highway listening to a playlist I’d made on my iPod, moving easily from one conversation topic to another, as we always did — and still do. This wasn’t a particularly special day; it was just another day for us — we were always going on drives or taking road trips together. On this day, though, she suddenly looked at me, and said that she wished she’d had moments like this as a daughter. She said she could never have imagined going on drives with her mother, enjoying music together and talking like friends. She didn’t mean it in a “you should be grateful for your life” kind of way, because she’s never been that person. She was just wistful. It was the first time I consciously reflected on the idea that maybe the way my parents treated me, and the way we related to each other, was not the way they had known their own parents — and they weren’t alone.
Honestly? I’m not sure who I would be if my parents had been different and if our relationship to one another hadn’t been what it was. Maybe I would still essentially be me. But would the trajectory of my life, the road to finding peace and contentment with who I am and where I am, have been a lot bumpier?
It’s hard to make sweeping statements or what-ifs about my life. Obviously, there are plenty of great, happy adults who had bad parents. There are also awful, unhappy adults who had good parents. It’s not something you can tell just by talking to someone, and that relative invisibility is partly why I want to talk about it, because, just like generational wealth, having good parents is a kind of hidden privilege. It’s not a privilege in the sense that people who have good parents should feel like they’ve gotten something over and above what they deserve, as could be said about, say, inheriting a massive trust fund. But while every child should have caretakers who love and support them unconditionally, it’s still a privilege in that it’s a big leg-up in life. And, unlike with a large inheritance, having good parents is the kind of benefit that you might carry around unwittingly, or giving much thought to how hard things might be if shittier people had raised you, something over which you’ve never had any control. While we choose friends, partners, other significant people in our lives as adults, our parents, of course, are a life-changing roll of the dice.
Of course, even though my parents are good, they are also imperfect people, just as I’m their imperfect daughter. Growing up, I went through peaks and valleys in my relationships with both of them, and there was plenty of fighting. When the three of us — I’m an only child — are under the same roof, we still fight, round robin-style so no one feels left out. They don’t have flawless personalities or always make the right decisions. But, having a serene, easy relationship isn’t the only criteria I’m using for good parenting. So, what makes a good parent a good parent, then?
According to psychotherapist Dr. Dana Dorfman, it’s not about saying and doing the objectively right thing every single time. In fact it’s not something that can be fully intellectualized at all — instead, she describes what good parenting might feel like to a child. “Almost through the cells of their body, they’re taking in the experience of being loved, being appreciated, of being nurtured, of being supported, of being soothed,” she says. It creates an aura of safety, the emotional equivalent of being wrapped in a snug blanket. And, it lasts.
In fact, it’s the unconditional aspect of this kind of love that’s the reason why I’ve never worried that my parents’ support for me could be dimmed by something I did or didn’t do, for example. Even through our worst, angriest fights, the ones where I — being a typical teenager — vowed that I would never speak to them again, it never occurred to me that they might withdraw a fraction of their affection if I kept up my rebellion. Conditional love, on the other hand, dangles affection and respect like a carrot on a stick in exchange for the “correct” behavior. It’s a love so contingent on externalities that it provides no security at all.
The pain and impact of conditional love can be significant, explains Dorfman. You might internalize that “your true authentic self is not lovable, not acceptable,” she says. “A lot of times people just hide parts of themselves — but those parts of themselves need expression. [Hiding it] can only be sustained for so long. It increases the chances greatly that they will experience anxiety, depression, [and] physical symptoms.”
One of the major behavioral science “breakthroughs” of the mid-20th century was psychologist Harry Harlow’s work in showing that baby rhesus monkeys crave comfort and affection from their caretakers, not just food. It might seem obvious today, but the prevailing school of thought when Harlow began his research was that affection wasn’t necessary in child-rearing, and that, in fact, too much could produce weak, overdependent children. The thinking was that babies attached to their mothers solely because mothers gave them food, and not because parents provided essential comfort. Harlow’s experiments, showing that the baby monkeys preferred the company of fake mothers covered in soft cloth who didn’t offer food over fake mothers made of wire who did offer food, were instrumental in the shifting view of parental affection — a social change for human babies achieved through cruelty to young monkeys, who were deprived of affection and socialization and in many cases became depressed.
“We can’t underestimate the parents’ ability to soothe the child,” says Dorfman. Parents that help their children feel better and allow them to depend on them for emotional regulation isn’t just helping the child in that moment, but is also establishing a model for the child to self-soothe as they mature.
“One of the most important aspects of a secure relationship is some kind of fundamental trust — a trust that the parent will be not only physically present, but emotionally present, and that they’re tuned in emotionally to the child,” says Dorfman. “If the child cries, the parent is responsive to it because that indicates you matter; when you express something, you’re heard. You are of importance. You’re worthy of being responded to.”
Sometimes well-meaning, generally good parents still minimize their children’s emotions. “We can be dismissive of children’s emotions because they seem childish — we have our adult way of doing things and we think we’re more evolved,” Dorfman says. “So it seems sort of silly to us.” But to a child, whatever’s distressing them is a matter of heaven and earth, and a parent should try to empathize with that. Dorfman notes that this kind of minimization is “the premise for a lot of difficulties people have” as adults. The memories of being scolded and punished as a child aren’t very vivid to me; what I remember in far greater detail are the moments in childhood when I felt that my parents had shrugged off my fears or frustrations as being the baseless overreaction of an undeveloped brain. What made my parents good is that most of the time they didn’t do this. Instead, they were sad with me, or listened patiently to understand my thinking.
It’s also a marker of good parenting to acknowledge that your child feels different emotions and has different thoughts on a matter than you do. “I think there’s great value to parents being able to give validation or appreciation of the child’s inner experience,” says Dorfman. “The parent can empathize and appreciate that the child is a separate person.”
“We don’t all do this,” she continues. “We certainly don’t do it all the time.”
Looking back, this is what I’m most grateful for. My parents have never not respected my inner life; they’ve never not been curious about who I am and what I think, whether it was similar to their lived experiences or starkly different. I think that many people love their children, but it’s more of a feeling that they experience, not an action they perform that their children experience. This might also mean that they love their children, as a concept, but don’t engage with them as people. My parents, meanwhile, have always made me feel like some fascinating dinner table conversationalist. They want to know my opinions on things. Our biggest family activity was going to the movies and talking out our thoughts afterward. I can’t count the number of hours my mom has listened to me explain some TV show she’s never seen, yet she still always demonstrates interest and asks questions just based on the fact that I’m losing my mind over it. She always wants to know more about my hobbies — and even occasionally asks how my Animal Crossing character is doing. (I don’t know, I’ve abandoned my island.)
When I started thinking about college, my parents were clear that I should apply where I wanted and study what I wanted. I said I wanted to study film and they were genuinely thrilled. There was never a moment when they weren’t excited to cheer on the adult I was becoming, without ever being judgmental and indicating which kind of adult they’d prefer me to be. I’m fortunate enough that I can’t imagine what it would be like to exist without the feeling of parental support as the foundation beneath me when I move through the world. It’s life-changing.
Whether you realize that your parents were amazing or terrible or somewhere in-between, there’s value in reflecting on your relationship with them. It’s the first chance at human connection we get on Earth. Whether or not you have a friendly, happy connection with them as an adult, you can still consider whether or not they consistently made you feel soothed and nurtured growing up — and why or why not? It’s not just an exercise in feeling gratitude or resentment. This introspection expands our capacity for emotional awareness, which Dorfman notes is pretty important in good parenting. In other words, not only can it help us become more satisfied adults, it could equip us to be better parents one day.
Until they had a child, it didn’t become clear to my mom and dad that their own parents hadn’t exactly been nurturing to them. According to my mom, her parents raised five children without ever noticing that they were little people with inner lives, or showing the slightest interest in their thoughts. In part, this is because my grandparents grew up in an age where parent-child relationships were conceived of differently than when my parents raised me. “I do think that it’s generational,” Dr. Dorfman says. “There is an evolution of parenting.”
Still, even as our concepts of parenting evolve, it’s possible to recognize, foundationally, that we should always treat everyone in our lives — no matter their age — with respect and care. We don’t choose the inheritances we get in life, but we can take stock of what our parents have passed down to us, for better or for worse, and in turn try to pick what we’ll pass on to the next generation, and beyond.
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