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"It's Them They Know, Not Me"
Musings on parent-child relationships
I was drawn to Guy and Halelly’s stories (written from the son’s & the mother’s perspectives, respectively) because they provide such a healthy example of a parent-child dialogue, and one that I never had a chance to experience myself.
The process of "becoming” is such a challenging one that it dominates our literature and culture. In Greek mythology, a recurrent theme is one where fathers are killed by their sons. Sons have to revolt against their fathers to claim the universe*, or suffer by subjugating themselves to the old way of doing things.
Growing up, the movie that captured this theme for me was “Dead Poet’s Society.” Set in a strict all-boys boarding school, it features the arrival of a new English teacher, Mr. Keating. He asks his class to tear out the introduction of their poetry books, which offers a mathematical formula for rating poetry, and encourages them to develop their own appreciation of the works and find their own voice. Neil, one of the students most drawn to Mr. Keating, discovers that his teacher is an alumnus of the school and was a member of its unsanctioned "Dead Poets Society”, which met in secret to read poetry. Neil revives the society and develops a passion for Shakespeare. Fearing disapproval from his father, who values discipline and athletics, Neil fakes a permission slip from him to perform in the school play. His father sees his beautiful performance, withdraws him from the school, and places him in a military academy. Seeing no way to live his values, Neil commits suicide.
This struggle is beautifully captured by Cat Steven’s song, “Father and Son”, in which the father argues for a calm, stable progression through life: “Find a girl, settle down, if you want you can marry.” Meanwhile, his son poignantly reflects, “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen” and, “If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them they know, not me.”
When I chose to finish my book, “GenXpat”, instead of attending business school, I was not only deciding between taking a chance on my book vs. the predictability of getting an MBA, but also between incurring my parents’ worry and disapproval if I were to become a writer vs. calming their fears about my future if I were to get a well-known diploma. I remember vividly thinking at the time that I could not achieve my values without disappointing them and damaging our relationship - I had to give up my desire for their approval and support to go my own way. In effect, I had to choose between (metaphorically) killing them to claim the universe, or killing my spirit. Publishing the Polish version of my book, in their country of origin, felt like coming full circle.
Since then, I have wanted to figure out a better way for parents and children to communicate about their children’s futures. Pitting one side against the other, with one winning at the cost of the other, is tragic. I believe in a process for young people to speak with their parents, understand each other’s goals and concerns, and create a plan that respects everyone’s needs, as Guy and Halelly did.
Have you found an effective way to communicate about different values across generations (young adult to parent, or parent to young adult)? Share in comments!