Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Knowing Your Parents

Honesty and openness in the parent-child relationship

I know now how little I really knew my folks. I realize now that all the categories I created to understand my parents were nothing more than the deep and lasting impressions of a child. I thought I knew them, but I only knew them through the filtered experiences of a child's mind. Even in my adult years I kept seeing their actions as extensions of those same old categories which I so astutely placed my parents. Now I realize that the only way I can know who they are is by listening to them, by no longer presuming that I really know them so well, and by willingly asking them to tell me about themselves.  –James Keenan, Moral Wisdom, p. 114.

 

There is much food for thought in the foregoing quotation from James Keenan. So much of how we view our parents—our perceptions of their personalities, our take on their strengths and weaknesses, our disappointments with them—is deeply shaped by the often mistaken and misinformed perceptions and categories of a child. This is not to say that the perspective of the child is always wrong, in fact, it is perhaps often right. But we should try to rethink our views of our own parents, if we desire a more accurate understanding of who they were and are.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I like Keenan's suggestions to adults who are trying to forge a better understanding of their parents. We should ask them questions about themselves. If you are a parent, consider how your child at 5, 15, or 25 perceives you, and what gaps in their picture of your life might be present. Many parents tend to hide a good deal of their past and present inner lives from their children. At times this is wise. But there are ways to share our inner lives with our children that can be good for the parent–child relationship and which may benefit them in the short or long-term.

Those of us who are parents should seek to foster deeper intimacy with our children by judiciously opening up our hearts and minds to them. We should provide our children some access to our inner worlds, sharing our struggles and successes at work, talking about a difficult relationship with a friend, or opening up about some dream or long-term goal. This will be good for our relationships with our children, and it may also enable us to pass along some valuable information to them. Hopefully we have some hard-won wisdom to give that could help them in their pursuit of happiness and good character.

Follow me on Twitter.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

more...

Subscribe to Ethics for Everyone

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.