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Parental self worth

Posted Aug 23 2008 3:16pm

I recently finished reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory for the first time. (I know, I know, color me behind on the latest novels. Blame it on grad school, children, and running my own business and move on please.) Now, I’ve read up on some of the controversy on whether Mary Boleyn was actually closer to 12 or 22 when she entered the English Court, which makes a fairly substantial difference in how one can understand and interpret her behavior and motives once she was there. Similarly, we can’t make sweeping assumptions of motivation and intent behind most of the historical actions which Gregory discussed. Regardless, Gregory decided to portray Mary as younger rather than older and ascribed clear motivations to every historical act, as well as many other interpersonal interactions, and so we’re going to run with those assumptions for the purpose of this conversation.

So what can I even say about a 12-year-old being married and then turned into the mistress of a king for the political advancement of her family? Shall I say she was a girl of her time? That we cannot or should not make judgments about social tendencies of a culture so far removed from our own? Honestly, both of those perspectives are a load of crap.

No, we can’t apply all of today’s standards to a society from 450 years ago. That much is clear. For example, in the present society, to live in a house without running water would be the ultimate sign of poverty, while having a servant - or multiple servants! - is quite the sign of the wealthy. However, running water was all but completely inaccessible while servants were plentiful 450 years ago.

But how we treat individuals, particularly those who are less politically powerful and influential is a key indicator of a society. Children have always been less powerful than adults, and women have often been less powerful than men. Using that “power over” to increase one’s own sense of political advancement or moral superiority or whatever is wrong regardless of what time period you hail from

How we parents commodify and benefit from our children’s sexuality and relationships is somewhat more oblique now than it was in the Boleyns’ days. I can’t image how I would gain substantial political power or direct wealth regardless of how “well” my children marry (or who they sleep with!). Nevertheless, there is still a certain prestige or a slight shadow that parents feel is cast on them when their children make “good” relationship choices or “bad” relationship choices. Because while a direct benefit rarely comes our way from those relationships, we still feel our parenting choices and ability are intricately tied up in our children’s relationships. Here are questions I get asked all the time that exemplify these parental feelings:

  • “Where did I go wrong?” (when wondering about a teenager’s choice to date an outlier)
  • “What should I have done differently?” (when wondering about a teenager’s accidental pregnancy)
  • “I just pray his grandparents never find out!” (when talking about a teenager dating someone of a different race)

We still, in many small ways, have our own personal feelings of adequacy invested in who and how our children date, even if we don’t have our personal political and bank accounts tied up anymore.

And this is what I have to say about this: Cut it out! Your personal value, either ephemeric or actual, is not directly related to your children’s romantic, marital, or sexual relationships. It might have been true 450 years ago, but it’s not any more.

The substantial reason to stop tying any of your personal sense of self to who your children date is because as long as you are tied to that, you will try to manipulate the situation so that the will date someone who will boost your sense of self rather than diminish it. And while that subtle manipulation is, of course, substantially different from the blatant direction that Mary Boleyn’s uncle might have given her about how and when to bed the king, the actions are steeped in the same motivation - you, the parent, rather than your teenager.

Seeing and acknowledging this motivation within yourself can be difficult. How can you be sure that you’re making a judgment based on your own subtle needs versus your teenager’s best interests? It is so easy to push the first off onto the second. But nevertheless, you must try. It is well worth the introspection that approaching this topic thoughtfully will afford you.

P.S. The Other Boleyn girl was a fun book, and a quick and easy read. Perfect light reading for a vacation at the beach !

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