The most important parenting lesson from Toni Morrison and Michelle Obama

I have been a parent for sixteen years. While this is the most important job of my life, I have embarked upon it equal parts holding great expectations and absent mindedly, I have had no training for it, before or during, I have failed at it most than at any job that I have ever held while being completely inlove with our son and there is really no professional development that can be had because each one of our children is different. And yet, every now and again there come some snippets of wisdom that remind us that there are actually only few things we need to do and they are the same for us all.

Such is this passage from Michelle Obama’s latest book, The Light We Carry:

“In a televised conversation for Oprah’s Book Club many years ago, the late Nobel Prize – winning author Toni Morrison described something meaningful she’s learned about parenting – and more generally about being an adult in the presence of children, and maybe even about being human.

When a kid walks in the room, your child or anybody else’s child,’ she asked her audience that day, ‘does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for.

Morrison’s own two sons were grown at this point, but what she’d learned had stayed with her. ‘When my children used to walk in the room when they were little, I looked at them to see if they’d buckled their trousers, or if their hair was combed, or if their socks were up, ‘ she said. ‘You think your affection and your deep love is on display, because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. What’s wrong now?

As a parent, she’d figured out that the critical face asserts itself ahead of anything else, regardless of how much affection and deep love come attached to it. In a side-by-side contest, the critical face will always win, leaving even a four-year-old wondering what they’re getting wrong. Many of us spend a lifetime registering the presence of critical faces around us, feeling bombarded by judgment, asking ourselves what we’re getting wrong, and internalizing the answers in harmful ways that stay with us for life. All to often, we turn the critical gaze directly on ourselves. We punish ourselves with what’s wrong before ever having the chance to even glimpse what’s right.

Which lead to the second part of Toni Morrison’s epiphany: It’s okay – even important sometimes – to tip the scales in the other direction. With her kids, Morrison learned to dial back the judgment and instead to lead with something warmer, truer, and more immediate – a lit-up face, an unfettered sense of gladness, a recognition not of the combed hair or pulled-up socks, but of the whole person who’d shown up before her. ‘Because when they walked into a room, I was glad to see them,” she said. “It’s just as small as that, you see.”

She had learned to put her gladness out front and up first not just with her kids but with all kids.

Michelle Obama, The Light We Carry, pg. 80

As a parent and as someone who will soon return to working in a school I want to remember three things going forward:

  1. Children are not born as “mini us”-es, copy cats of ourselves we get to put forth in the world. Children are individuals, with their own internal weaving and their own life experiences we have the priviledge to see grow up close.
  2. Going forward in my parenting I will hold the lines I quoted above in my awareness and try harder.
  3. This all is not only about my son. There are no “other people’s children”. They are all our children and if, in school, on the street, in a store, in a park there is at least one face lighting up, who knows, we might just spark the idea in one young brain that something is right and bright with them. And isn’t that an amazing thing to be living for?

Now, the only certainty I have about the above is that I will fail. What I am hoping is to have the stamina to stand up, dust myself off and try again. On and on and on until the end of times. My times.

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

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