A lot of folks like me hit their 20s or 30s and suddenly realize all the things their parents got wrong. The blame rolls in. Our insecurities, troubles with romance, inability to develop healthy friendships, whatever — all of it comes back to mom and pop. If only they hadn’t done this or that, we would be healthy and whole.
When my parents divorced after years of trying to keep it together, I didn’t know what to do with their relationship. In the back of my mind, I knew there were bright moments, but I simplified things by seeing their relationship as one big mistake.
Being a husband and a dad for a few years has given me some perspective. I realize how quickly marital fights can precipitate into feelings of bitterness. I understand how adorable children can make you want to yell loudly enough to terrify them into behaving. And I’m starting to see that regardless of their divorce, Mom and Dad actually got a lot of things right as parents. Here are a few of them:
1. They let me be different. Seriously y’all, I was an oddball growing up — at least for a kid in south Mississippi. I produced my own radio shows using homemade sound effects; I was into theater; I didn’t care about sports; and the ratio of female to male friends was way too high on the female end. I don’t remember Mom or Dad even hinting that I needed to change any of that. In fact, I remember them actually appreciating those parts of me. They taught me that I was okay like I was, and it helped me like myself when I became an adult.
2. They taught me that it’s okay to cry. Growing up, I saw both of my parents cry at different times. They let me see them hurt, and I think that’s important for a child. In doing so, they showed me that you don’t have to cram your feelings down and pretend they don’t exist. It’s one of the most uncomfortably authentic ways they demonstrated that it’s okay to be painfully honest with yourself and others.
3. They taught me how to appreciate beauty in nature. We had a rule in our house that if you saw a beautiful sunset or a full moon, you could make everyone stop what they were doing and come outside to look at it. As a result, I don’t take natural beauty for granted, and my own children are learning to value natural beauty and draw my attention to it.
4. They taught me how to look for Jesus in every area of my life. My parents were always finding Jesus in the ordinary. They easily turned daily life into an illustrated sermon, but not in a way that was boring (usually). As my mom says, “We wanted to teach you something about Jesus every day.” That opened my eyes to see the ways that the Holy Spirit is living and active in my daily life, and it’s a major source of the ideas you see in my writing.
5. They didn’t try to fix me. Like any kid, I had some glaring character flaws that I hadn’t learned to hide yet. I don’t remember my parents zeroing in on those things or trying to berate me into changing. Maybe it’s because they had the wisdom to realize that, like most people, I just needed some room to grow.
6. They showed me how to be friendly to strangers. There were so many times I saw my parents strike up conversations with someone in the line at the grocery store or get into a five-minute conversation with a fast food employee. I found it embarrassing, but it taught me how to be bold as an adult and not fear making new relationships.
7. They frequently said “I love you” to us and affirmed us. I’ve met so many Baby Boomers who never heard the words “I love you” from their parents. I can’t imagine what that’s like. I’ve heard those words countless thousands of times in my lifetime — and that includes my adulthood. My parents also verbally affirmed us on a regular basis. Thanks to them, it comes naturally to me to compliment and cheer my kids (and my wife).
8. They were physically affectionate with us. My parents gave us kisses, hugs, back scratches, plenty of tickles, and pats on the back when we were growing up. I think one of the lasting effects of that is that it made me more comfortable being physically affectionate as an adult. I’m not uncomfortable giving my wife a real kiss before I go to work, greeting my guy friends with a hug, or cuddling with my children. I’m not sure I would’ve been that way if my parents had withheld physically touch from us.
9. They didn’t put us on guilt trips — once we got in trouble and got corrected, it was over. In school, I often got sent to the principal’s office for mild misbehavior, and I felt like I was a bad boy — but that wasn’t the case at home. I certainly got disciplined for wrongdoing, but once the discipline was over, it was over. Mom and Dad didn’t put us on guilt trips, remind us of what we had done, or define us by our mistakes. They just moved on. I’ve followed that example with my children, which gives them room to turn around and change bad behavior where necessary.
10. They taught us to value everyone. I saw my parents interact with all kinds of people — different racial groups, people with disabilities, the affluent, and the outsider. In fact, one of the first churches we attended in south Mississippi was a racially integrated church, which was not at all common. This opened my horizons, taught me how to live in a different comfort zone, and undoubtedly influences my drive as a civil rights lawyer.
Something has surprised me as I’ve written this list: I’m having happy memories rise to the surface — things I didn’t know I had forgotten, and I’ve unexpectedly been moved to tears of gratitude. I suppose that’s the nature of thankfulness. It opens new and life-giving windows inside of us.
Listen, I know that sometimes it takes a while for wounded people to untangle the knots of mistakes, pain, and unforgiveness — it certainly did with my parents. But hopefully, my kids will be wise enough to let go of my mistakes early on and recognize the ways we put our hearts and souls into loving them. It won’t fix the things we got wrong, but it will make it easier for our kids to be grateful for the things we got right.