Is there a more enduring and (once we are one ourselves) grating television stereotype than the clueless parent? The goofy father spouting bromides; the stressed-out mom nagging over every detail. It seems sometimes as if every TV writer is still 16, having suddenly realized, in the light of his newfound street-savvy, that his parents have been dorks all along. Yet I can’t chalk this up entirely to lazy writing. I believe there is something about being a parent that has the potential to bring out the dork in all of us. Before the tikes arrive it is just us, and we make our mistakes, and ramble on however we like, cursing, guffawing, snarking—whatever pleases us. It isn’t always pretty, but we alone suffer the bumps and scrapes of our experiments in human being-ness.
Then along come the children, and a staggering reality takes hold: we must be an example. These poor, trusting innocents are going to look to us as an example of how to live a meaningful life. And so we sometimes fold under the pressure. Faced with a son chosen last for kickball, or a daughter who won’t pick up her clothes, we find ourselves saying, “But you’re special in other ways;” or, “Cleaning your room isn’t a chore, it’s an act of respect.”
And we shudder. We’ve become a sit-com parent. Yet it’s so easy to mock the parent who reaches for the cliché, but not so easy to find a new way, a sincere way, to say that your son is in fact special and that in respecting her room your daughter respects herself. To do so, the parent must face his or her own child who was bromided and nagged, and then forgive, forgive, forgive. Wisdom waits until you are honest with yourself.
All children want their parents to be wise and compassionate and honest and kind. All parents know this because they were children once. You do your best, and the children are quick to point out when you come up short. And so the cycle of love, and disappointment, and forgiveness turns on. In this way the child and the parent are bound forever, drawn together by the vision of how a saint might live, while learning by trial and error that forgiveness is the balm that reveals perfection.
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