Parenting Traps

More than a gesture

Teaching a daughter to be grateful without guilt

By John Burgess
May 31, 2009
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My 18-year-old daughter and I communicate these days mostly by riff and irony. Seldom earnest, we fence over movies and books and pop music.

So it may have been a blunder when I decided to explain to this college-bound senior how hard I had worked to save my share of her university expenses (I'm divorced). I don't think I laid it on too thick -- lousy shifts, overtime hours; not exactly Dickensian. But she grew distressed and finally, head in hands, burst out: "But I don't want it to be like that!"

I knew it! I thought. Growing up in this crazy-expensive suburb has so distorted her values that she can't even face what's real. Of course, I have been thinking thoughts like that since she acquired her second Barbie.

I sought out my friend Mark, a counselor to adolescents, who points out that our society has convinced itself that we must avoid oppressing our youth with the reality of parental sacrifice. It is a tender, even painful subject for both child and parent, unfamiliar in a way that, say, sex and drugs and divorce and gayness are not.

I asked my daughter to explain what she had meant.

"If kids love their parents, they don't want their parents to have to make sacrifices for them," she said. "I felt bad that you had to be unhappy, and I felt guilty." A little overdrawn, but that's adolescence. And it made me understand much better what she was struggling with. I want her thanks, not guilt. She, I believe, wants to give exactly that -- gratitude without guilt. Neither of us is sure how to go about this gracefully.

We talked some more. I told her that hardworking isn't the same as unhappy. I asked her about sacrifice -- isn't it what parents do, quite willingly? Didn't she see herself doing that for her kids someday? A nod: "Yeah."

I didn't ask her what form she would want their gratitude to take. As for hers, well, I'm hoping there may be a freshman course called Problems in Contemporary American Life: Acknowledging the Tapped-Out Parent.

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