When my mother was young she was taught that, until she married, she should defer to her father in all important decisions. “Your elders know best” – was what she was told (this was usually followed up with a “and when you’re married, your husband will know best,” but I will not get into that right now).
Today, many people are busy lamenting the breakdown of such traditions. They exist on many levels of my native society, but there is also the fear that they will disintegrate. Alarmists paint a typically dystopian scenario: “elders” no longer exist and society is in shambles. Five-year-olds are snorting crushed Viagra pills, and houses of worship have been converted to seedy “massage parlors.”
I would like to take a critical look at traditional relationships between parents and children without falling victim to reactionary rhetoric that has little in common with reality.
Now, it is true that parents usually want what’s best for their child. However, do parents always know what’s best? If you have been around the block a few times, you know what the answer is.
Parents are people, and people make mistakes. This has been true since the beginning of time, and it will be true in any age and any culture.
When I was younger, my father was convinced that I needed to study engineering or medicine for the sake of having a stable career. It did not matter that I had absolutely no talents when it came to either one of these esteemed fields of study.
I shudder to think as to how miserably I would have failed if I didn’t stand up for myself at a crucial moment, and rejected my father’s well-meaning advice.
Am I a bad daughter?
The above is a rhetorical question, but goes to the heart of the matter. What should we value more in our children? Obedience? Or common sense?
Now that I am a parent myself, I worry about what my child will internalize, and what she will reject. Yes, I believe rejection is inevitable. When our children are very young, we reject their ideas and wishes all the time: “No, you cannot eat the glue! You cannot pet the stray dog! You cannot stick your fingers in the garbage disposal/watch the R-rated movie/repeat the bad word that your father was silly enough to say in your presence!”
As children mature, however, autonomous thinking must be allowed to take place. This is the only way for a child to become an adult.
As they grow, children begin to reject many of our ideas. If we can find a healthy balance between a child’s personal growth and anarchist leanings at this point in life, we can keep our relationship and our household relatively sane.
Children who are not allowed to think for themselves every once in a while will remain infantile and immature. I encounter this phenomenon particularly often when I go home. A thirty-year-old woman who cannot function without being told what to do is a sorry sight. Do not even try to tell me otherwise!
I still go to my father for advice, personally. He respected me enough to let me make my own choice regarding my studies, and he respects me today. Respect is an essential element of wisdom, therefore I know I need to take his opinions into account.
There is an important lesson in that, and it will stay with me as I go about my own life as a parent.
Amar is an Arab-American poet. For privacy reasons, she writes under a pseudonym.