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Leaving the Garden of Eden: Playing Fair between Parent and Child

February 22, 2012

Last week, Mary Quigley, NYU Professor of Journalism, interviewed me for her terrific blog, Mothering 21: A blog for “parenting”the over-21 set. Mary is an exceptional writer, author and journalist.  We spoke about a range of issues of concern for parents and children (growing and grown). I very much enjoyed speaking with her. Yet, the best interviews surprise me by what I learn about my own views. Towards the end of our interview, Mary asked me, “Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?” I replied, without hesitation, ““It’s really important for people to understand that we all operate within a three- generational context of give and take. Some of our expectations on what we expect from our children are based on what was expected of us. We always have to be very careful to evaluate whether what we gave to our parents–and what we got from them–was reasonable or not. Otherwise, you’ll pass along your unfinished business to your own children.”

When children leave “the garden of Eden” of their childhoods, they may leave in a huff–after all, if the garden were too wonderful, you’d never leave. And some young adults do struggle to leave home, either emotionally or physically. Yet, you can’t truly leave the garden by either idealizing or devaluing the relationships that were part of it. To truly grow up, you must return to the garden to weed it. You must understand who the gardeners were; what shaped them, what shaped you, what took root, and how you’ll tend your own garden one day.  

Parents and their children, growing and grown, share and transmit a legacy of relating for the next generation. Despite love, no parent perfectly imagines his or her child, and so hurts them, however unintentionally. It’s not good enough to say, “they did the best they could.” That sentiment allows for love, but stunts growth. Parent-child relationships can continue to grow through and grow beyond injuries by addressing and caring about experiences– whether there was unfairness, painful misunderstandings, unreasonable expectations, feeling unknown or even sometimes unloved.  All these feelings take place alongside love and family loyalty.

I often encourage my clients, long past 21, to imagine their parents in the context of their lives: as a vulnerable child, a sibling, a spouse, and then as a young parent to them. Then take the risk to let their parents now better know, care, and imagine them. Beyond love, you gain closeness, and a better garden to leave the next generation.

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