A Father’s Day Gift For Your Adult Children
This father’s Day, do something special for your children. Give them the best gift ever – take responsibility for any mistakes you’ve made with them. This is a gift of your honesty and your listening to them; it is also a gift for you to help ease your guilt.
Your mistakes may be specific, like not protecting them from their abusive mother or your getting drunk at their 14th birthday party. Or you mistakes may be more general, like working so much you didn’t spend enough time with them, or giving them bad advice, like “big boys don’t cry.” Doing this is in fact another gift – a gift of modeling for them that when you make mistakes you can make amends – even if late.
Here’s what I heard from a client. Stuart said, “I swore I’d never be like my father who practically lived at his store. I know I’m a much better father than he – when I’m with my children. But don’t ask how many little league games or piano recitals I’ve missed. And I cringe when I think about how little patience I had with my two daughters or how I criticized my son for not being tough enough.”
Relative to his father, Stuart is a great dad. He was with his wife at the birth of each child; he helped with their homework – when he was home; he took them out on Sunday.
He continued. “But never on Saturday. I let my son and daughters down, but more than that, I let myself down. I’ve explained to them that I worked hard to provide them with a good life so they could go skiing every winter, have their own cars, belong to the swim club.”
Explanations and apologies are about you. They can’t make a son or daughter feel better about not having had their father a more active part of their lives. They can’t remove little children’s fear that if they had been better children, their father would have wanted to spend time with them. There’s an important difference between, “I’m sorry for what I did to you,” and “I’m sorry for what you suffered as a result of what I did.”
Your grown children need you to hear what it was like for them when you weren’t there, or you were drunk, or you embarrassed them. They need you to hear how lonely or angry they felt, how they blamed themselves for being unlovable or a disappointment to you. Their comfort comes – not from your apology – but from your validating their pain.
After thinking about this, Stuart decided to talk with each of his children separately. A month later, he reported on his efforts.
“First, I made a list of how I let each of them down. That was hard to do. I listed incidents when I didn’t have time to be with them or when I disappointed them. I asked them to help me remember these and other times. I made it clear I really wanted to hear from each of them – not to beat myself up with remorse, but so I could hear what they suffered.
“I started with my oldest daughter, I trusted she would be really open with me, and she was – painfully so. We both cried. I couldn’t have loved her more than at that moment. I was so proud of her… And, I told her so!
“My youngest daughter was more hesitant to speak up, so I reminded her of her first date. She was nervous and wanted my approval about how she looked in her new outfit. I was so tired, I fell asleep in front of the TV and never saw her. I tried putting myself in her shoes and said she must have been hurt, looking so pretty and I didn’t care enough to stay awake to see her.
“That opened the door. Over the next few weeks, she shared a few more stories of how bad she felt when I let her down. I validated her feelings each time. I think that helped her; I know I felt better hearing from her.
“It was hardest with my son who grunted, ‘It’s no big deal.’ I told him it was a big deal. I said the worst thing I did to him was teach him a father could discount his son. I said I hoped when he had children, he didn’t take after me in that way.”
Your children may not be open to sharing their feelings with you. They may anticipate you will apologize, and they don’t want that. They may be too angry to listen to you now – in the same way you hadn’t listened to them back then. They may be scared to tell you what they really felt, or they may be scared to go back to those old feelings. They may be scared that you may let them down again if they try to tell you now.
They may turn you away by diminishing the experiences, like Stuart’s son, “It’s no big deal.” The fact it: you weren’t there for them. And that is a big deal. And, it’s a big deal that you are now ready to hear what they experienced – whether or not they are ready to tell you.
So, this Father’s Day, by giving them the gift of your listening, you are also giving yourself a gift. You can’t change what you did in the past, but you will feel better being able to be the kind of father now that you wish you had been back then.
If you have questions or comments or want more information, contact me at:
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis
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