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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m a 68-year-old father of a son and daughter who are 39 and 34, respectively. At the age of 4, the former was a very talkative and inquisitive child. One weekend afternoon while my wife was out, he was a bit overwhelming, so I told him that he had to be quiet for 10 minutes and that I’d set the timer on our oven. When the buzzer went off, he was free to carry on. He now says he thinks that this was a very bush move.
As for my daughter, I found her one day, during middle school, on the couch weeping because her brother was so much smarter than she was in math. (They are both smart, as evidenced by their straight As in high school.) To no avail I reminded her, like most parents would, that she bested him in other areas. My next step was to bite the bullet and simply be honest; she was old enough for that. In effect, I said: “OK, he is better in math, but he’s smarter than me, too.” And then I said, “What am I going to do—kill myself?” She seemed satisfied (with the honesty, not with me ending it all).
Oh, how wrong I was. Within the last few years she told me that what I said to her about her brother’s ability was horrible and offensive, and that all of her friends agree with her. Any opinion on these matters for an otherwise happy family?
—I Need an Umpire
Here’s the thing. If a person is telling you some three decades later that something you did was damaging, then I think it’s safe to assume that for them it was damaging. Hell, carrying something for 35 years is damage in and of itself. This is not to imply that you were some kind of terrible and abusive father, or that you didn’t also make all kinds of wonderful and caring parenting choices. I’m sure your kids are even grateful for this. But there is a reason they still remember these things: because they made an impact, presumably a negative one.
As a general rule, when your adult kid tells you that something you did harmed them, you should not be focusing on whether you think it harmed them. You should be focusing on the fact that they feel harmed. I know you love your children, so it probably matters to you that they feel harmed because not wanting someone you love to feel harmed is truly like the No. 1 directive of love. So my suggestion is to listen—and respond—from that place.
You could say “It makes me feel terrible that you felt hurt by these things. It is of course never my intention to hurt you, but I know that I didn’t always live up to that. And I feel genuinely bad about that. If there is anything I can do to help with this, to acknowledge this better, or to help with making it better, let me know. I love you.” You don’t even have to say it super seriously. But I do think you have to say it.
It may help to remember that as parents, our words mean a whole lot, even to kids who are trying their damnedest to differentiate themselves from us. (That’s probably why our kids are trying to differentiate themselves from us.) So when you say something like “Your brother is smarter than you,” for your daughter it’s like 50 people saying “Your brother is smarter than you,” and that’s in addition to the 50 nonparental people who might have already said that to her. Thusly, good and caring parenting is about remembering that fact and choosing your words with care. And if a sentence like that lives with her for decades, imagine how much it will mean to her when you tell her that you are genuinely sorry for ever having hurt her.