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The Lessons My Daughter Teaches Me

The parent-child relationship. By Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.

Guest Post by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

I will never forget a moment during a lunch I had with my old friend and colleague Mary Catherine Bateson, a wise, straight-talking woman, an anthropologist whose blend of empiricism and wisdom has always made me see things differently. I had an agenda when I invited her to have hot soup with me on a winter day in Cambridge several years ago. My daughter Tolani—who had jumped into a precocious and volatile adolescence at 11—was then 15 and I was feeling weak and exhausted by the four years of accumulated conflicts at home. Asking Tolani to clean up the dishes after dinner—a chore that was copiously and colorfully spelled out on the family job chart for the week—might elicit an escalation of anger; beginning with excuses that she had no time because piles of homework awaited her, moving on to declarations that I was being unfair and unreasonable, ending in raging accusations that her younger brother Martin had always been my favorite child, her exit from the kitchen—dishes undone—punctuated by outrageous yelling and door slamming. Some battles were protracted, like the long-running struggle over her first tattoo –you had to have parental permission if you were under 18 and my fourteen-year-old daughter wanted to have a dolphin carved on her left upper arm—a chronic debate that would simmer for weeks of solicitous, then urgent, pleading and suddenly erupt into a full-blown press of accusations, claiming that I was infantilizing her; theatrically quoting passages from My Body Myself. For the most part, her outrageous behavior was targeted at me and limited to the home front. Out in the world, she carried herself with poise and patience, maturity and aplomb.

Courtesy Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
Source: Courtesy Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

As I lunched with my friend, I was also feeling particularly despondent about the years stretching out in front of us that were sure to bring more treachery; a treachery made all the more penetrating because of its tender and loving lining. I thought that Bateson, the cultural anthropologist, might help me (actually I was looking to be rescued) see something productive—maybe even redemptive—in our mother/daughter struggles; and I thought that as a mother of a daughter a dozen years older than mine, she might have some survival skills up her sleeve. While my soup got cold in front of me, I spun out my war stories and then waited for her sympathy and support. Bateson listened attentively; never interrupting the rush of emotion that I could not seem to contain or temper. Then she said something surprising. “Your daughter is living on another planet, and she has a lot to teach you about it… Listen to her.” Her spare, didactic comment at first felt facile and unsympathetic. She did not elaborate; did not respond to my hunger for her advice. For weeks, I brooded about her take on my troubles, and finally realized that she was saying something powerful and fundamental… that these intergenerational conversations—even the hardest ones—are opportunities for parental growth and insight; that our children are our teachers, particularly because they are living in a world so different from the one in which we grew up. They are becoming people different from any that we have ever known.

A couple of years later after a huge blow up with my daughter about something that neither of us could even remember or name afterwards—at one of those moments when Bateson’s generous perspective had long since worn off—I called a close friend and told him that I was “at the end of my rope.” I had no more energy, no more fight in me. I wanted to throw in the towel and admit defeat. His response: “You are nowhere near the end of your rope.” And, of course, he was right. Just as Bateson was helping me see that my daughter was teaching me about the world; so too my friend was helping me acknowledge that our sometimes-tortured mother-daughter relationship was offering me the chance to know myself in new ways; that I was developing new capacities; stretching my emotional reserve and repertoire, becoming more patient and forgiving. I was learning a new kind of composure and restraint. I began to understand how important it was to be selective about the timing, and spare in the wording, of my reactions; how I could convey simple respect by really listening before jumping in with my side of the argument; how I might look below the surface tensions to try and figure out the real message underneath. And I now recognize that these same qualities—of discipline and perspective—which were wrested from the wreckage of our mother-daughter struggles—became useful in helping me navigate the rocky terrain of many difficult encounters beyond the boundaries of our home.

Now from a safe distance of almost two decades, as I reflect on these love wars with my daughter—their fury and their drama—I see how they propelled me as a learner. I see how I was occasionally able to get some distance on the volatile encounters, how I was able to find enough restraint to resist the tit-for-tat that would typically escalate into pitched battle. How do we as parents have those rare moments of revelation and epiphany? How do we shift our role from teacher to learner? How do we change the dynamic from adversarial to empathic… allowing us the space to listen; a kind of listening that does not assume we already know what our child is about to say; that does not offer up the scripted response. In that moment of listening, empathy, restraint, and stepping back, I believe that we begin to take on the role of learner, and we begin to come to terms with the lessons our children are teaching us about themselves and their emerging identity, and about the world that they are inhabiting; the planet which is their perch.

But our learning as parents is not always provoked through opposition and embattlement with our children. Sometimes the teaching comes in sweet and tender moments, during interludes of insight and intimacy. Even during our tug of war years, my daughter Tolani was my generous, empathic teacher. Her identity as an artist firmly established by the time she was three, over the years Tolani has drawn, painted and sculpted me, creating portraits that have given me insight into how she sees me and who I am becoming. On my fiftieth birthday, she did a large watercolor of me—she called it “The Essence of Mama.” I was stripped of all of my jewelry and combs; a filmy apricot scarf draped around my bare shoulders; my hair, pulled back in a bun, was black on one side and silver on the other. I gazed at the image that did not look like me but seemed to capture my essence and my future. I could see the “me” I was becoming; anticipating a nakedness and vulnerability that I was still covering up; an unadorned strength that awaited me. In fact, I love my daughter’s revelatory view of her mother so much—for its truth-value and its compassion—that I have it hanging in my bedroom and look at it each morning as I wake up to a new day. I gaze at the painting, and I feel known.

Our cultural regard of parenting is reinforced by the developmental literature of scholars who have primarily focused their lenses on the trajectories of child growth charting the cognitive, emotional, and social learning that takes place during infancy, early childhood, puberty, and adolescence; revealing the non-linear path of progression and regression that marks each developmental hurdle; exploring the ways in which parents and caregivers can support and nurture developmental milestones along the way. And this literature has primarily seen the parents as the teachers and shapers; guiding and supporting their children’s learning; reinforcing the skills, rituals, and values that they believe are important to the child’s survival and success in the world. The learning is seen as flowing in one direction; the knowledge passing from the parent to the child. But all of us know that this is a skewed view; one—that in its preoccupation with early development, and in its view of parents as the consummate teachers and cultural reinforcers—misses the two-sidedness and adaptive dynamic of socialization between parents and their children. It is a static view that is blind to the ways in which parenting requires life-long learning; a pedagogy that is often composed by our children.

I have for a long time believed that successful aging requires that we become life-long learners, curious seekers of new experiences and perspectives, pushing the frontiers of our knowledge, tolerating risk and uncertainty, even failure as we change and grow. But I now recognize that our learning is informed and enlarged when we are open to the lessons our children teach us. The lens of learning I use here is broad including lessons that are mind-altering, heart expanding, and morally complex; including the learning of new skills and competencies, the development of insights, the testing of values, and the shifts in ideology and perspective-taking on fundamental questions of race, culture, gender, and identity; and including lessons on love and work and play. Parent-child development becomes turned upside in simultaneously disquieting and inspiring ways, as our children socialize their parents into new understandings and new ways of being.

Our offspring become the inspiration for our growing, instigating developmental changes in us through challenge, questioning, and struggle; through leading and modeling, through refusal and resistance; through provocations that are at once uplifting and unsettling. Parenthood itself becomes a mechanism for growth. I am reminded of the wise words of the great life-span researcher, George Valliant who, in his masterful and exhaustive account of adult development, made the most powerful claim for the relationship between children’s pedagogy and parental growth when he suggested that the best predictor of successful aging is how people answer the question, “what have you learned from your children?”

Now that I have reached the ripe and radiant age of 72 and my daughter Tolani—who is herself a mother—has become a beautiful and graceful woman of 35, the adolescent struggles and drama are a distant memory but the lessons continue; arriving like an epiphany, all of a sudden transforming my view of myself and the world we inhabit or growing slowly, iteratively like a long-running play with a narrative arc. The generational echoes of teaching and learning resonate in our encounters as we navigate the tender and treacherous terrain between us, as we grow our relationship and reveal our changing identities. We are growing each other up.

Every now and then Valliant’s poignant question floats across my mind and I am thrown back to earlier times, ancient memories of ordinary and extraordinary moments between us. Recently, I recalled a gorgeous and yummy Mothers’ Day brunch that Tolani prepared for my mother, my sister, and me when she was thirteen—three generations around the groaning board—when we suddenly realized her culinary skills had out distanced all of us. After finishing the four course meal, we grown-up ladies got our notebooks out to record the recipe for a divine pumpkin/spinach soup that she served up, the green and orange liquids magically maintaining their delicate separateness when she poured it in our bowls. My mother asked in admiration, “Where did you learn to cook like this?” and her granddaughter answered, without skipping a beat, “Nana, I’m an artist. This is just like painting.” 

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Ed.D., the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University, is the author of eleven books, including the recent Growing Each Other Up.