The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home. (Confucius)
One morning in another life a grade twelve student met me at the door of my classroom holding his report card in his hand. As a student whose first language was not English, he had received a grade of 58% in the average of his term work and his examination. He was adamant that such a mark was unacceptable. I listened carefully to his petition; reviewed his work and informed him that the mark would stand.
I later learned that the mark had been “deleted” (back in the non-digital age, ‘white-out’ was the rather obvious choice for deletions) so that his parents could not see the truth. Pride, parental expectations and evidence of personal shame, completely unjustified by the diligence and the persistence the student displayed to learn a new language, were at the root of the situation. Deception was the choice of method to deal with the perceived problem.
There are so many different “reasons” for both children and parents resorting to deception, cover-up, dissembling, and failing to “show up” as we really are.
Basic to the dynamic of deception in the family is the varying reliance on “pride” that accompanies too many situations. If the family is engaged in alcohol dependence, or domestic or child abuse, it is taken as a “given” that family secrets have to be protected, at all costs. Even the closest of friends, neighbours, fellow pew-sitters, co-workers, and classmates must not and do not ever learnt the truth of the tragedy. In fact, too often, even within the family, certain members will not be made aware of the full truth, thereby “protecting” both the abuser and the one kept in the dark from quite literally having a relationship. No relationship is feasible without a full disclosure among close family members. And the refusal to disclose, including the unwillingness, and the incapacity to disclose, as well as the fear of such disclosure (another piece of evidence that is often overlooked in any analysis) lies at the heart of the issue.
While T.S. Eliot reminds us that we cannot stand too much reality, nevertheless, it is the degree of withholding that too often determines the kind of foundation on which family relationships are constructed. For a young twenty-something to drive her car into a snowbank on the way home from a house party, without injuring any of the occupants or damaging the car, without having the courage, and the openness to inform her single mother, as a way of protecting both herself and her mother, is to demonstrate a degree of enmeshment that warrants critical self-examination. For an adolescent male to put long sleeve shirts on every day before leaving for school, to cover up the welts inflicted by his mother, is what many might call a merely incidental incidence, not worthy of consideration as a serious family issue. Those who hold such a view, however, are not, were not, and cannot image being in the “shoes” of the adolescent. For the adolescent, one of the questions is ‘why is this abuse occurring only when my father is not present, and is not being told?’
We do have some examples of public disclosure that, although they are often relegated to the social columns, nevertheless merit a reference. President Obama, for one, stopped smoking cigarettes six years ago, “because he so feared his wife’s response” if he failed to stop. On the other hand, for Trump to have to apologize to his family for having said what he said, and for what he has done, and not said, is loudly displayed as fodder in the current presidential election. So the issue of truth-telling is front and centre in the public discourse in North America, and perhaps around the world.
No child or adolescent can or will tell his or her parents everything about their lives: not the first time a car drives into a ditch, not the first time too much booze renders one intoxicated, not the first time some illicit drug renders him ‘high’…and yet the patterns of disclosure are begun in such situations. For some, it takes a few days, weeks or even months for them to find the confidence to disclose. And, with that time lapse, perhaps they can and do reconcile their fear, and their apprehension about the consequences of full disclosure. And the parents, themselves, are not without responsibility for the kind of family culture they have fostered over the early years. Too much pressure for control, too little relaxation and acceptance of the small “mistakes” and too much rigid discipline, all of these squarely in the purview and the job description of the parent will lead to an inevitable withholding. Parents, too, who operate at such a high performance level, (I was certainly one of these!) will inculcate a fear of not being “good enough” even though their words might be unequivocally supportive of their children.
Fear of not being “good enough,” of not being “up to the perfection” of their parents, of not being willing (or perhaps ever able) to let their parents see their “imperfections” is one of the dynamics, and a very subtle and dangerous dynamic it is) that infiltrates many professional families. How many times have we all heard the story of a young man or woman who spent most of their life trying to life up to the expectations of their parents. And, we all know that those expectations might never have been specifically articulated, but merely inferred from the actions and the attitudes of the parents to their own lives. And these attitudes are extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the child to confront. When, for example, is there time in a busy, fully scheduled, fully engaged, (over-regulated) schedule for children to participate in their various “activities” and then also to have the time and the energy and the composure to say to their parent, “You know, I am getting tired of trying to meet your unrealistic goals for my life! I would like to talk about what I want to do, and what I am willing to do and I would like to get your support for my agenda, not the one that makes you look good in front of your friends!”
Clearly, it is not only the ‘sins’ of the child that need disclosure. So do the attitudes, demands, expectations and even beliefs of the parents also need to be explored, fully and in an unqualified and unrestricted manner, in family circles. And such circles require “strong” parents, open parents, vulnerable parents and the courage to structure time and space for the family to have these conversations. And it is this family culture that I failed to facilitate in my own marriage. I was too busy “performing” on the public stage, drinking in the applause that comes from such performances. I was too dependent on public adulation to be the kind of effective and compassionate and open and vulnerable parent that my children needed and deserved. The temperature inside the home, especially the “heat” of the parental expectations, and also the parental “strength” to take the honest criticism from their children (not the phoney power games, but the real issues of too much pressure that forecloses on open communication) is critical for full disclosure.
And the time and patience required to open to our children, really open, really sit and listen, rather than burying our minds and our bodies in our own “professional agendas” as an unconscious way of medicating the pain of our own unworthiness and our determination to prove our value to “whomever” it is that we believe we have to prove ourselves to, is so ephemeral, like a butterfly, and so fleeting. And like the tennis racket that is poised at a certain angle, needing to be shifted only a fraction of an inch to get the ball over the net, parental attitudes, in too many cases, need to be shifted from achievements of power, money, status and public recognition and acknowledgements to getting to really know their children. I failed in this primary parental responsibility, and for that I have profound regrets and for that I apologize to my three daughters.
They are all professionally successful, and for that they have themselves to thank. They did it! They made their parents and their culture proud. And I can only hope that they did not do it at the cost of missing the emotional and the psychic needs of their children.
Confucius tells an important truth. Can we read the deeper implications to our culture and to our families in his observation. For far too long, family issues have been relegated to the social pages of our newspapers, where the majority of readers are women. Education, parenting and the development of a family culture, including the development of family relationships has for far too long been considered “effeminate” and the responsibility of the mother. It is long past time for editors, political leaders and fathers to learn that they obligations do not stop with the proverbial “bring home the bacon” commandment. All the bacon in the world will not feed the soul, the spirits and the hearts of their children. We need to raise the expectations on ourselves, (and to reap the rewards of our determined and disciplined shift of the “racket angle” of our goals and our agendas) and put more of our energy and our imaginations into the kind of atmosphere and the kind of warmth we bring and foster in our kitchens and our television rooms, and in our backyards, and in our camping trips.