Adolescents aren’t good at empathizing with their parents, as a general rule. Developmentally, they are highly attuned to the cues for approval and disapproval coming from their peers, and that can lead them to treat their parents with a kind of cold disregard. I left a birthday party full of neighbors and family the day I turned 16 so I could impress my friends with my new drivers’ license and drive us all to the movies.
It kind of hits us in early adulthood that our parents are human beings with complicated desires and needs. If we have kids of our own, then, we empathize even more, as our appreciation for the Herculean task of keeping an infant alive opens up on the realization: my parents did this! Who knew they were so capable?
As our kids grow up and we begin to endure the same kind of turmoil we doled out to mom and dad, we become keenly aware of what raising us must have cost them. And what about their parents? Did the people who raised us not also have this same realization about what their upbringing cost the people who raised them?
It’s not all turmoil, of course. It’s just that the turmoil is the thing we’re completely blind to. It’s the character-shaper we’re not accounting for as we regard our parents as static figures who only are as they always have been. Of course they were kids once too. They were adolescents. They were parents of infants and teenagers coming to an awareness of their own parents’ growth and development and their own role in it.
This stretches backward, too. The kids we’re trying to raise are a long, long way from a nuanced appreciation for our humanity and our experience. But they will get there, and the question for us is: who are we going to be when they do?