A Personal Reflection on Intergenerational Parenting

Blog post: Larissa Dann 29 September 2015 (updated 13 January, 2017)               Mum and Dad, London, 1960

“100 years after you die it won’t matter what car you drove or what house you lived in but it will matter how you raised your kids” (Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) bumper sticker)*

My father has a terminal illness.  My mother has advanced dementia. Suddenly, it seems my time with my parents is limited.  As I watch my children burst into life, and I see my parents fade, I begin to reflect. How did my parents’ actions, their living of their attitudes and values, their modelling, influence my raising of their grandchildren?

Many factors influence intergenerational parenting.  Family traumas such as an untimely death in the family, child abuse, adoption, forced removal from a family, being raised in an institution, survivors of war (as either a civilian, refugee or serviceperson), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – these events will affect generations to come.  What we pass on to our children will be a mixture of awareness, choice and circumstance.

When I became a parent I found myself evaluating aspects of my childhood, and from that process I made choices on how to raise my children.  Similarly, my parents assessed their formative years, making changes to bring us up. No doubt, my children will do likewise.  I have consciously implemented some of my parents’ approaches, and discarded others.  I am all too aware that my parents are human, that I am human.  There is no perfection in our family. So I sought new ways, alternative approaches, to enhance the influence of my upbringing.

This post is my personal reflection on some of my positive experiences of being raised, and why it matters as I bring up my children. I hope that my process of reflection may be of interest and benefit to you, in your own journey of contemplation of the generations. 

My parents, my perspective.

Months ago, a post came across my Facebook page - “32 Questions to ask your Dad Before He Dies” (Interview Someone You Love about Life).  From the bottom of my heart I thank the author, Brendan Burchard. Now, as I sit with Dad, I am guided in my conversations.  I am learning about my father - his hopes, how he viewed his role as a parent, what he has learnt from life so far. I am beginning to understand why he is who he is; why he acted the way he acted.  And Dad loves our discussions, allowing me to record his voice, his tone, and his chuckle.  He revels in reminiscing, reflecting on aspects of his life in a new way, and finding he recalls far more than he realised.     

My father’s memories of the past, his learnings from his life, are a gateway into his grandchildren’s future. 

Dad has the fascinating face of a life lived, the type of face he once stopped to photograph. His craggy features are lined with wisdom and humour.  His beard and wild, still-dark hair are the mark of a man looking for more from life than vanity.  His hairless pate bears the marks of sun and hard yakka. Dad is not perfect.  In fact, he is very human.  And he has been there all my life. 

The robust health that Dad once enjoyed is dissipating before my eyes.  I am cut to pieces as I watch his once confident stride become hesitant. But Dad remains.  He is intelligent, curious, questioning, with a quirky sense of humour. My father is a storyteller, with both the spoken and written word putty in his hands.  He loves nothing better than an audience as he spins his yarns, gathering in the strands, plaiting together a tale, and reeling us in until the punch line.   Dad might be failing physically, but he retains his sense of self, his dignity, who he is and his place in the world.

My father is not a consumer.  He did not aim for the big house, the latest car.  He is scrupulously honest.  Dad enjoys people.  He is interested in their stories, their backgrounds. When I was a child, Dad would often meet someone in the street and stop for a chat.  After what seemed like hours, my sister and I would tug at his sleeve, to encourage him to move on.  To my constant surprise (I am embarrassed to admit), I recognise that Dad attracts others. He gathers people to his side.  He has friendships that have lasted for decades, and new friendships that are loyal and caring.  Dad values relationships, particularly his relationship with each member of his family.

My Mum was a woman of strength and optimism. My grief for her has had time to evolve, as I watch her familiar personality disappear into the mist of disease. Mum’s watery blue eyes still occasionally sparkle with humour, the smile lines at the edge of her eyes crinkling. But the recognition, intelligence, determination and love, a hallmark of her gaze, are missing.

For much of her life, Mum aspired to the good car, the big house.  But in the end, she was content and happy in her two-bedroom home in the middle of a bush block.  Mum was independent, a risk-taker, someone who would bend rules just a little, to overcome obstacles. She was a hard worker, resilient in the face of hardship.  When she lost all her money, she shook herself off and built a successful enterprise. Mum loved her family, and is affectionate to the end.                                 

Mum and Dad separated when I was very young. Together, they had a life of adventure.  In 1960 they rode a motorbike through countries including India, Iran, Afghanistan, England, Russia then back to Australia. No mobile phones, no instant contact with their family back home, no real-time Facebook updates to keep friends and family informed.  Instead, they wrote lengthy, beautifully descriptive letters of their adventures, and took boxes and boxes of slide photographs. Apart, they continued to care for and respect each other, maintaining their friendship as they supported and loved their children and grandchildren, and sharing Christmases together with their family. Both were humble and kind, and volunteering was an important part of their life.

One of my parents’ biggest gifts to me is that they love my children as much as I do. My parents are my children’s most besotted fans. 

Each of my parents had their own style of parenting.  Mum was the autocrat, while Dad was more permissive.  After some research and some training, I’ve consciously chosen a style in between. I try to implement a relationship-based, democratic style of parenting, with the skills of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.).

“. . . what will matter is how you raised your kids”

What is it that I admire about my children? What have my parents passed to me, and through me to my children? Where do I see the influence of intergenerational upbringing?

In my children,

I see my heritage in their sparkling blue eyes, bright with enquiry and passion and love of learning.  

I see the character and lives of generations past in my children’s now.  

I see resilience, depth, thoughtfulness, persistence, courage, kindness and determination.

I hear humour,

and the stories collected by each child of their day, of their lives, of their friendships

Retold in the narrative manner of their grandfather.

I see concern for the wellbeing of others, empathy for those less fortunate,

and a realisation that they are part of a bigger world, for which they must care.

I see love of family,

and acceptance of difference, of frailty.

Why does it matter?

Why does the way I raised my children matter? Because, in the end, I would like to see the world a better place.

As I reflect, I appreciate the intergenerational power of parenting and modelling.  My parents lived the qualities of courage, kindness, relationship, resilience, consideration, and love.  Around these pillars I wound my own parenting. I can only do my best to lay a solid foundation of ‘what matters’ for my children, and perhaps their children – just as my parents did for me, and their parents and caregivers did for them.

I take comfort in the realisation that, when my parents die (as, inevitably, will we all), aspects of who they are will live on. I will grieve, my children will grieve. But I will continue to see my parents in a turn of phrase, or a character quirk, or a value lived.  And I will remember them, with fondness, love and gratitude.

*          Modified from an excerpt from "Within My Power" by Forest Witcraft.   “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different, because I was important in the life of a boy.”

Photos: Courtesy Larissa Dann and Family

 © Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved                                                                                             


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