Co-Author: Steve Schlozman, MD
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think back on a memorable incident with your parents when you were growing up?
We asked a number of young adults this question. We might have expected recounts of warm, fuzzy times spent on the couch, family vacations, or birthday parties.
The most common responses recalled instances when they were really bad and got caught.
When we asked a parallel question to parents—"What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the relationship you have with your kids?"—the result was remarkably similar. We got story after story about kids getting caught when they were doing something dumb. For various reasons, we tend to remember with something just shy of nostalgic reverie the times when there was trouble.
Even stranger, parents and kids smiled when they indulged these recollections.
Why do we remember these failed attempts to set limits? Why do we remember—and with a smile—times we messed up?
The answer is pretty simple. The most important sign of parental love is saying no. That’s why toddlers walk (or toddle) around shouting “NO!” when they point their little fingers at forbidden things. The light socket, the knives, the tail of the family cat…it’s all fair game for a parent’s furrowed brow and imperially-pointed finger. Our kids learn to say “no” because we teach them how. We teach them to tolerate the frustration that follows the realization that we can’t always get what we want. (Yes, someone said that well before Mick Jagger).
As we grow up, we therefore simultaneously love and hate our parents. We hate them when they turn out the light at bedtime. We hate them when they reprimand us for lying, stealing, refusing a command, or hitting a sibling. Hate may seem a strong word, but recall that potent rage you felt when your parents told you “no.”
If you’re lucky, you’ll realize this important fact as well: We always kiss and make up after wrongdoing. We make amends. We learn to say we’re sorry.
Apology is the antidote to guilt. This shuffle of emotions that recurs from early childhood through adolescence is fundamental. We are human, both good and bad, loved and deserving of anger, simultaneously the enforcer and the transgressor. In short, we learn that messing up isn’t the end of the world.
As parents, we will mess up too. We can’t always be on our game. We come home from work, stressed and overwhelmed, and scream at the clingy 3-year-old for demanding our overtapped attention. Or we lash out at the 12-year-old for not putting the dishes in the sink. If we are mindful and catch ourselves, we learn that we can’t always be perfect. We, too, are both good and bad.
If done right…well, it all works out in the end.
This is the dance all parents and kids go through. It’s a dance of transgressions, of guilty feelings, of apologies and resolutions. The end result is very important: We learn how to play nice with others. We learn to take responsibility for our mistakes. We learn that our anger or hurtful behavior isn’t final, that we can always do something about it. We learn to be concerned about others in a truly empathetic way.
In short, we learn to be moral—and that’s no small feat. Morality is not something exclusively taught in churches, synagogues, or mosques; it’s a normal part of human development. Through the parental dance of praise and reprimand, we learn morality from our closest relationships—those with our parents.
This is why “delinquent” kids don’t usually say “No one ever loved me”—more often they say that “No one was there to tell me ‘no.’” Someone has to draw the line, and that someone has to be an adult who is involved and invested.
Here’s the truth: Although the loving, peaceful, happy times are important, they don’t compare to the times we resolve conflict. After all, if we can’t negotiate these transgressions, we can never truly alleviate the capacity for guilt to rule our lives. Living only with guilt harms our self-esteem, sense of worthiness, and our fundamental ability to be responsible for our actions.
After all, we only succeed through our failures.
Originally published for The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.