“The bottom line is, we’re all flawed in this world. No one’s perfect…I want to dedicate this to my parents and to parents that are evolving everywhere, families that are just passing through this world and doing their best.”
This quote is from Richard Linklater’s speech at the 2015 Golden Globes. Boyhood, his most recent movie, won three of the main awards: Best Drama, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress. It thrills me that this movie has a wide audience, and is well liked. Although I’m sure different people like it for different reasons. One of my reasons is how it frames parenthood, and especially the kind personified by Patricia Arquette’s character. Hers may not be the perfect parenting, but it’s the best kind, I think. What makes it the best? It’s a particular blend of ingredients, which I can detect and savour, but never tried to articulate properly before. I’ll make an attempt here.
Broadly speaking, parents are either the been-there-before type, or the am-here-for-you type. Let me explain.
The former are locked in stereotypes. For them, children are underlings in need of adult care and wisdom. The high up position they assume as parents prevents them from looking at the world through their children’s eyes. The been-there-before parents feel “in charge”, and what matters the most to them is how their yet-unfinished charges – their kids – will turn out. And until their job is finished, learning can flow only one way, from parent to kid. Of course the parent always knows better! One cannot possibly learn anything from a kid! Plus, parents cannot treat kids as their equals. After all, kids are projects “under construction”, still vulnerable, still raw. So, been-there-before parents have their sight fixed on the (hopefully bright) future. But often times this leaves them disconnected from their kids.
Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to always have to explain things to them. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Meanwhile, all the am-here-for-you parents strive for is to stay connected to their kids. Children, to them, are these new human beings who are just opening their eyes on the world. And what could be more stimulating than being around your kids, and getting to look at the world with fresh eyes?! The am-here-for-you parents consider themselves lucky, not because of the meaning and purpose that comes with raising kids, but because of their kids’ companionship and the chance to share their lives – here and now – with these unspoiled human beings. Children are not projects “under construction”, but their parents’ most compelling and dearest friends. They are not unfinished “charges” but equals, who do need attention and care but who can also teach the grownups a thing or two. So, the am-here-for-you parents have their sight on the present, and always stay tuned. They know there is plenty to learn from kids!
When you take the time to actually listen, with humility, to what people have to say, it’s amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children. – Greg Mortenson
Now, going back to Boyhood, I thought Olivia – played by Patricia Arquette – was an am-here-for-you parent. Throughout the movie and the years it spans, Olivia seems genuinely attuned to her two kids. Their fresh outlook and feelings, their unfolding young lives absorb her and keep her grounded. She shares her life – struggles and all – with her kids, and draws strength from who they are becoming as persons. To her, they aren’t intellectual halflings. They aren’t just weak and helpless kids. She grows as a person along with them, gives them love and respect, and expects the same in return. And I’m thinking now of another example, a real person this time: Dana Stevens, the movie critic from Slate. Based on her story Tumbling Into the Screen, she’s an am-here-for-you parent, too. She too is a devoted companion to her young daughter, and receptive enough to learn from her how to experience movies in a new and engaging way. The story is both eloquent and moving – a rare and invigorating take on parenthood.
Unfortunately, there are many parents who fit the other, been-there-before type, and often against their best intentions. For instance (and I’m sticking with movies), you may remember Neil’s dad from Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989). How tragically disconnected he was from his son! How little regard he had for his son as his own person with his own aspirations and dreams. A case study in been-there-before parenting! And how about Tracy’s mom in Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003)? At first, she seems to be sharing her life with her daughter as two best friends would, like an am-here-for-you mom. But when Tracy befriends a troubled and twisted girl, the mother-daughter connection breaks. Most people who watched the movie blame it on peer pressure, which is notoriously strong among teen girls. But I think it was more due to Tracy’s mom, who – sadly – turned out to be a been-there-before parent, and watched her daughter’s behaviour slip as she wouldn’t have watched a friend’s. If she’d been a true companion to Tracy, the mom would have provided honest feedback, and wouldn’t have tolerated insult and abuse from her daughter. Her expectations of decency and respect from her daughter would have been upheld. Instead, the mom put up with her daughter’s nasty behaviour because, she thought, “Tracy’s just a teen, I’ve been there, it will pass”. And if you’ve seen the movie, you know that it didn’t end well.
As you can tell, I’m a fan of the am-here-for-you parenting. I think it’s the only kind of parenting that makes sense, especially in times such as ours, which change so fast. But is this kind of parenting an innate gift or an acquired skill? Are the necessary ingredients intrinsic to a parent’s personality? Can this be learned? While it’s clear to me that personalities and life circumstances matter, I wonder… How much control do we have over the kind of parents we want to be? How much influence over how we “evolve”? Are parents, as Linklater said, “just passing through” carried by life’s currents? I know none of these questions are easy, but I’m sure they’re worth thinking about. Parenting is, after all, the most important job in the world.
But kids don’t stay with you if you do it right. It’s the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run – Barbara Kingsolver