Phyllis’s older son, fleeing his hurricane flooded home in Texas, had just come crawling back to her in desperation after being kicked out on his last visit. He brought his mouthy girlfriend and needy young children. Phyllis toiled all day to set him up with social service agencies. But he was mean and unappreciative, and eventually he and his girlfriend couldn’t hold their tongues. Who could blame Phyllis for throwing them back out on the streets?
Yet even as I murmured my sympathy for her ordeal, immense sorrow filled me. What had this insistence on respect done for her? Her four adult children have turned their backs on her. They do not come to see her for years at a time, and their rare visits inevitably blow up in her face.
I found myself wondering at what point in their development Phyllis first drew the line in the sand with her children? What made her need for respect so non-negotiable? Isn’t it an occupational hazard of parenthood, to be disrespected sometimes, in the heat of each battle? I look back through the blur of thirty-some years, to when my two older children were first learning to sass me. What would it have meant, at any given moment, to “not put up with” their antics?
This question certainly took front and center in my parenting years as our youngest kept flying into foul-mouthed tantrums at a moment’s notice, raging, raging against the hand he had been dealt. Everything that was wrong with his world as an adopted child was our fault.
Many observers, no doubt including his traumatized older siblings, wanted us to just ”beat the shit out of him.” They believed in this facile solution as thoroughly as I believe that it was our respect for his chronic expressions of resentment that has allowed us to hold on to our relationship.
Of course what the parenting experts advocated was boundary setting, not beatings. How could I argue with advice that felt so reasonable, so healthy? I am not a masochist. I knew I deserved respect, like all human beings. I longed for words of deference or gratitude from my son, like any other parent.
But the cultural insistence on a child’s respect felt viscerally uncomfortable to me. I did not trust the near-universal adult indignation towards disrespectful kids. When people advised some form of “tough love,” no matter how nuanced, I felt lonely. Perhaps I was worn down by ongoing trauma and over-identification with my child. Yet what I kept sensing in many of these adults was the energy of left-over terror from their own childhood, helplessness turned on its head. The time-honored adult chorus was fundamentally a projection: “This kid is going to get the better of me if I allow him to…I can’t let him manipulate me… I’ve got to let him know who’s boss, in no uncertain terms.”
A huge, essential drama was playing itself out in our home. Our son had landed mysteriously in a family where he did not belong, biologically or energetically. To divert the flow of his rage with the trivializing message, “Be good, now. Follow the rules of civil discourse!” would serve as one more abandonment. And when I tried, it felt as if I was following instructions from a manual.
Instead, what I felt called to do was to embrace the full verbal spectrum of his rage, incarnating the unconditional love of God. No one had taught me this spiritual practice. Right or wrong, though, it was all I could trust.
Whenever our son was “out of control,” the greatest challenge my husband and I faced was to stay in our adult selves. We each carried our own wounds and temptations. I fought the impulse to curl up in a ball. Gerry’s eyes would fill with panic even as the testosterone kicked in, panic that evoked images of a frightened little boy helpless before his powerful father. And his threatening words and truculent body language seemed perfectly, exquisitely designed to escalate our son’s behaviors. His reactivity made no adult sense.
One time we invited a close male friend over during one of these episodes; we thought he would help calm the storm. I watched in dismay as he too was taken over by the war-like instinct for one-upmanship. Soon this struggle escalated as well.
Our son had keen antennae for affronted adults, even well-spoken school counselors, spouting a line they could not live because they had never dared confront their own childhood wounds. He always responded with respect to teachers and counselors who saw through his behaviors straight into his better self. While he struggled in mainstream classrooms, he flourished in specialized schools where the adults laid none of their own insecurities on the kids they served. Even as they set boundaries, the boundary-setting engaged none of their energy. Their love did.
In Cincinnati there is a one particular inner-city high school where the student suspension rate is many times greater than the average. No one can quite figure out why. But I think it’s likely their school culture is preoccupied with the need for respect. Control lest you be controlled.
And so I grew sad listening to Phyllis using her tough language of adult entitlement when I could hear in her voice the chaotic rage of the traumatized child. There was nothing I could say that would open her eyes, and give her back her children.
I have strongly resonated through the years with Alice Miller, author of For Your Own Good, and with Bert Hellinger, founder of Family Constellation Work. Our children owe us nothing, not even respect. In the natural order of human life, parents give, and their children turn around and give to the next generation. If we are lucky, and maybe a bit wise, respect will spring forth of its own accord.