When we were young parents with small children, paterfamilias and I suffered from a strange paradox. We would pay good money to hire a babysitter so we could go out to dinner without our children. But then we would spend the better part of that dinner hour talking about our children--their amazing strengths, the anathema of the occasional weakness. We had busy careers and took a pro-active interest in the issues of the day. And yet, much of the time was given over to jabbering away about our children.
Now that those children are grown and are no longer in our house--or even nearby--we don't have the same raw material to fuel endless discussions about them. And yet, our children are often the subject of our dinner time discussions. We've got bragging rights: We admire the heights they've reached, the road they are taking, the delight of their children, with only an occasional bow to a slight imperfection. (As I wrote in a birthday limerick to Uber son a few years ago:
There’s one thing we’d like to suggest/And we say this slightly in jest:
When you pick up the phone/And hear “dial tone”
Call Mom, Call Dad. They’re the best!)
We may be proud of our kids and talk among ourselves about them a lot, but I keep away from taking credit for who and what they've become--or even how often they call home. My mantra: If you take credit for the good stuff, you've got to take the blame for the bad stuff. And who wants to go down that latter road?
I was reminded of the parenting paradox while on vacation with Uber son and family this summer. Good grandparents that we are [a few self-pats on the back here], we offered to take care of our Grands while Uber son and daughter-in-law went out for a romantic dinner together. They called it a 'date' and seemed delighted to go. They came back glowing--only to admit that much of the dinner discussion revovled around, yes, their children.
I was also reminded of this paradox and my mantra when reading Deborah Tannen's excellent, "You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation." Tannen focuses on the eggshell like quality of parent-grownchild communications but her commentary also takes into account the burden "bragging rights" puts on us as parents of grown children as well as the pressure it puts on our children. "if the measure of a mother's success," she writes, "is the perfection observable in her children, then the children bear a burden equal to her own: Whenever they are less than perfect, they are letting their mothers down."
So it would seem natural and quite appropriate for parents to go out to dinner and, with the kids at a distance, brag to each other about them. It's quite another to burden them with our high opinion of them. Somewhere out there is a middle road where we can let them know we're proud of them without making them feel they have to live up to the high bar we've set for them.