A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop

A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop

Dear Parents (Especially New Ones):

I’m a Christian-Buddhist-pastor mutt in my mid-fifties, married to Kathy for thirty-two years. Daughter Elena and son Micah are grown, the former and her husband Matt having given us grandson Cole and promising us another grand-someone in the spring.

Yesterday Elena, Cole, and I (Pop) went to a nature center for a toddle in the woods. Nearly two, the boy is steady, but the path was strewn with branches and limbs from a recent windstorm. I kept close, spotting his steps, saying in my head, “Don’t fall! Don’t fall! Don’t fall!” My mother did this with me, too, so the anxious parent-grandparent impulse has genetic force behind it.


Watch out! Don’t get poked in the eye.

Or is the force my childhood home, which was loving and attentive but nerved up? I’m certainly not the first to observe that children take family vibes along when they grow up and move out. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to love in healthy ways and navigate through anxiety. In my late twenties it was full-blown panic attacks. In middle-age, it’s mostly trying to distinguish love from appeasement and not to turn every emotional speck of stardust into a blackhole. I pray-meditate a lot.

Lately my spiritual practice has drawn me to Tibetan-Buddhist Pema Chodron, whose teachings are weaving themselves into my thoughts and actions. In a recent post, Writing and the Narrative of Suffering, I offer a brief summary of my novice understanding of some key concepts Ani Pema works with. If what follows is interesting, I invite you to have a look.

I was watching one of Pema’s videos this morning when I was grabbed by her flawless diagnosis of my parenting experience:

Trungpa Rimpoche coined the phrase idiot compassion, or you could say idiot loving-kindness. Some of you may have tried raising your children this way and you’re wishing you hadn’t. You can’t bear to see them in any kind of pain, so you give them whatever they want. [Doing this] is like trying to assuage someone’s thirst by giving them saltwater.

I’m overjoyed to report that Elena (27) and Micah (23) are doing well these days, but my unintended lesson about suffering sometimes made their journey a walk on glowing coals. By regularly showing them idiot compassion, I taught them that pain can be eliminated.

Let’s be clear about my motivation. I could claim that I wanted to spare them disappointment, sadness, frustration, whatever, but that was only 25% true. More pressing, say 75% true, was my need to overcome a father’s discomfort. This is idiot compassion, idiot loving-kindness. It could also be called selfish compassion or artificial loving-kindness. I try to make myself better by denying my child the reality every human being has to confront sooner or later: Life is sweet, but it also slaps your heart and punches your spirit.

Years ago in seminary, my Enneagram results indicated that conflict in close proximity could be crippling. Conflict, pissing and moaning kids, discipline and tough calls: It was all crippling, so much so that to find relief I undercut wife Kathy’s strength, wisdom, and wishes.

So Elena wore black makeup, dated guys I should have shown the door, and watched and listened to what she damn-well pleased. And Micah bought weed with money I gave him, dropped out of high school, and put less effort into my feeble attempt at home schooling than I did.

There’s more, some of it worse, but you get the idea. All my reasoning sounded convincing at the time, but now I look back at myself. That younger man was doubled over, rendered frantic and sick by the need to steady the ship, to calm the waters. If you think I was stupid, you’re right.

Given this scathing review of my parenting skills, you might imagine me constantly ripping myself a new one. Other than sighing, I don’t do much self-reproach. What compassion I possess also extends to myself. I mistook indulgence for insight. The glasses I saw through were, in fact, blinders.

So I put down these ideas. I’m not telling you what to do, but mistakes are great teachers. What I believe now is this: Allowing children to experience necessary suffering may well be the highest form of love.

And I’m glad that it’s not too late for me to learn. Cole fell three times on one patch of slick leaves–two near-splits and one averted face plant. I stayed back. He was fine, of course. Someday he’ll get a fat lip or a bruised soul. When he does, I’ll pick him up and tell him the truth: “I know you’re hurt. Sorry I couldn’t stop it. The best Pop can do is stay close and hurt with you.”


Elena and Cole–three spills later and belly laughing

Peace and love,

John Coleman

8 thoughts on “A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop

  1. I find this particularly meaningful in raising preteen/teen girls. There are so many things now that I don’t have answers for and can’t fix. And, I find myself fretting (internally), but ultimately shrugging and thinking…well, they’re going to have to figure it out and/or suffer through it. There’s only so much I can do and I can’t spare them from every pain or discomfort in life. Learning to deal with snarky friends, or thick, unmanageable hair, or not being good enough to get on the Science Olympiad team ….these are things that happen and they suck and you’ve got to just find a way to make peace with it and move on.

    • “So many things now that I don’t have answers for and can’t fix.” I guess that pretty much covers it. And personally, moving on has always been a struggle. I tend to talk every little injury to death in my head until I’m worn out. Shutting up is my project for the last 1/3 or so of life. Peace, John

  2. I just love reading these posts about your family. You are perfect in your imperfections.

    Sidenote: Wow, does Elena ever look like Kathy! Holy twinsies, Batman! 🙂

    • Perfect in our imperfections! Hot damn! I’m going to get that tattooed somewhere decent. And yeah, people always say Kathy and Elena look alike. I don’t see it so much, but I guess that’s common in a family. Peace, John

  3. There is much wisdom in this. Bumps and bruises, skinned knees and split lips – they are part of the fabric of childhood. I tended to be the one, crouched, ready to sprint to the side of my child as their steps faltered. I got a bit better at letting the little things happen and not rush to their side with antibacterial ointment and a Band-Aid. My first child got the worst of my hovering and is less independent.
    My second son did not seem to have the build-in defense mechanism to put his hands out as he fell and spend many months with forehead road rash. He is the tough little man in our house who proudly declares himself to be the daredevil of the family. I shudder to think of what he will be like as a teenager. And I also cringe and wonder if we will have to kick our eldest son out, lest he become that 20 something son who lives in our basement (no offense to those with sons living in your basement – I just would prefer not to have one).

    • “Forehead road rash”–love it! I’ve got my fingers crossed for you in the 20-something-squatter department. The way things are lined up for young people these days, it takes heroic self-discipline and prudent decisions along the way for them to untie the apron strings–or more to the point, not to depend on the parental wallet. Peace and a sincere thank you for taking time to talk with me. John

      • My dad always used to say, “Eighteen and out!”. I was worried as my 18th birthday was before I was to graduate from high school. I remember asking my mom if I really had to leave before I graduated (which, of course, I did not.) It was never discussed as an option that we could stay home. It was high school and then college. I hope my boys are independent enough (and Husband and I are strong enough) that they do not want to stay.

        • I hear you. The parenting gig involves such difficult balances. For me the hardest was keeping loving tenderness and necessary limits in healthy tension–if that makes any sense. I’m rooting for you and Husband! John

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