I must have been five. We had just moved to Georgia from Korea and the only friends I now had were those children of other military families. One of them, Kate, I don’t remember very well except from pictures; she was my best friend. So, naturally, my mother sewed us matching dresses, one set with a Peter Rabbit print. The dresses were adorable, but I was devastated by the differences in our dresses: my Peter Rabbits were upside-down. Why did my mother give Kate the better dress? I distinctly remember my mother talking me down from tears. She made the dress especially for me, so that when I looked down I could see one of my favorite characters every time.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as miscommunication — a well intentioned placement of fabric that has been interpreted as second choice — and even more often, it’s as if they don’t listen. Or if they do, they don’t understand.
We hear them, we hear the rhetoric: “We were young once; we were where you are now.”
It’s difficult to believe maybe, but parents were once young, once going through the same things. They’re human just like us. Flawed and beautiful, parents typically do the best they know how, with the knowledge and resources they have in the moment.
It might not always be clear where they are coming from — whether because of purposeful planning to hide vulnerabilities, a generational gap of understanding, or for pure lack of being on the same page of communication.
So, we get angry or frustrated; we want our parents to meet us where we are now. We forget that to try and meet them where they are, too.
The main lessons I’ve learned as an adult in how to be a better child to my parent are twofold: be honest and draw boundaries.
(Note: if you can without harming your self or situation)
Be honest. Even when it hurts. Even when it’s awkward.
People often comment on the fact my personal relationship with my parents is so open, without realizing it took years of practice and patience. I recall numerous slammed doors, lots of hurtful exchanged words, and even hanging up on each other once or twice before we got to a place where we could exchange “When you say this, it makes me feel like that or this is what I hear or expect.” Eventually, we even got to a place where our different personalities and ways of expressing our thoughts no longer caused a rise out of me or stunned her. We were communicating in our own “languages” without interpretation, as a mother and daughter finally on the same page.
We barely even remember the angst and anger in conversations of my younger years. There are always reminders of how (just in any relationship) communication is key and being honest with yourself and each other must be constantly worked upon.
Recently, my mother moved to Chicago. It was a big change for me after living away from family or home rather independently for six years. I was nervous about how this new living arrangement would look. So, before her move, we discussed our boundaries. I knew that with working full-time, going to school full-time, volunteering weekly, having some sort of social life and spending time with my partner that I wouldn’t be able to visit as often as either of us would like. After she moved, we had to have a similar sit-down, after seeing what expectations were in the air once plans from our previous talk had been underway. Just like being honest, creating our boundaries take active work.
It was suddenly a new sort of navigation for us: before, living 1110 miles apart, we never scheduled or planned time together. Now, we had to take advantage of our new dynamic as both busy, independent adults, and figure out what worked for each of us separately and for each of us together. These discussions of our boundaries included being accessible in time, how soon to plan ahead, texting versus calling, and meeting up from little things like errands to big events. It may be frustrating and time-consuming at first, but ultimately it is quite the reward.
It’s important, as well, to hold each other accountable. Keep in mind that it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to be true to what you really want. As a boundary rule, it may be helpful to place equal responsibility on both parent and child figures to be honest in communication about your own desires and situations and to gently discuss and respect boundaries drawn by one another.