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Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot on shifting parent-child relationships

Below follows an excerpt from a recent piece by MacArthur Award–winning sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot at Psychology Today, drawn from her work in Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers.


A couple of years later after a huge blow up with my daughter about something that neither of us could even remember or name afterwards—at one of those moments when Bateson’s generous perspective had long since worn off—I called a close friend and told him that I was “at the end of my rope.” I had no more energy, no more fight in me. I wanted to throw in the towel and admit defeat. His response: “You are nowhere near the end of your rope.” And, of course, he was right. Just as Bateson was helping me see that my daughter was teaching me about the world; so too my friend was helping me acknowledge that our sometimes-tortured mother-daughter relationship was offering me the chance to know myself in new ways; that I was developing new capacities; stretching my emotional reserve and repertoire, becoming more patient and forgiving. I was learning a new kind of composure and restraint. I began to understand how important it was to be selective about the timing, and spare in the wording, of my reactions; how I could convey simple respect by really listening before jumping in with my side of the argument; how I might look below the surface tensions to try and figure out the real message underneath. And I now recognize that these same qualities—of discipline and perspective—which were wrested from the wreckage of our mother-daughter struggles—became useful in helping me navigate the rocky terrain of many difficult encounters beyond the boundaries of our home.

Now from a safe distance of almost two decades, as I reflect on these love wars with my daughter—their fury and their drama—I see how they propelled me as a learner. I see how I was occasionally able to get some distance on the volatile encounters, how I was able to find enough restraint to resist the tit-for-tat that would typically escalate into pitched battle. How do we as parents have those rare moments of revelation and epiphany? How do we shift our role from teacher to learner? How do we change the dynamic from adversarial to empathic… allowing us the space to listen; a kind of listening that does not assume we already know what our child is about to say; that does not offer up the scripted response. In that moment of listening, empathy, restraint, and stepping back, I believe that we begin to take on the role of learner, and we begin to come to terms with the lessons our children are teaching us about themselves and their emerging identity, and about the world that they are inhabiting; the planet which is their perch.

But our learning as parents is not always provoked through opposition and embattlement with our children. Sometimes the teaching comes in sweet and tender moments, during interludes of insight and intimacy. Even during our tug of war years, my daughter Tolani was my generous, empathic teacher. Her identity as an artist firmly established by the time she was three, over the years Tolani has drawn, painted and sculpted me, creating portraits that have given me insight into how she sees me and who I am becoming. On my fiftieth birthday, she did a large watercolor of me—she called it “The Essence of Mama.” I was stripped of all of my jewelry and combs; a filmy apricot scarf draped around my bare shoulders; my hair, pulled back in a bun, was black on one side and silver on the other. I gazed at the image that did not look like me but seemed to capture my essence and my future. I could see the “me” I was becoming; anticipating a nakedness and vulnerability that I was still covering up; an unadorned strength that awaited me. In fact, I love my daughter’s revelatory view of her mother so much—for its truth-value and its compassion—that I have it hanging in my bedroom and look at it each morning as I wake up to a new day. I gaze at the painting, and I feel known.

To read more about Growing Each Other Up, click here.