My father committed suicide when was 17. It’s been 18 years now. When he died, I hated him. I was an emotional sensitive teenager who could not understand why my Dad, who was my hero and gentle play mate when I was a child, had suddenly -in my mind- chosen to be an alcoholic, financially irresponsible, abusive husband, father and human being. Back then, I honestly thought he must have chosen to be this way- chosen to drink his money and job away, chosen to be thin and emaciated because of his alcoholism and chosen not to meet his responsibilities as a father and husband.
After he killed himself, and after my own severe struggles as a teenager and later progressing into many years of my twenties, with Clinical depression and anxiety, I begun to empathize with my father who I now realized and recognized was severely depressed for most of his life leading to his death. As a teenager I didn’t have the capacity to think about his problems soberly because I had no idea what depression or alcoholism were, and frankly I was self-centered and also absorbed in my own depression, which was triggered and made worse by our home environment.
I guess it’s normal for most children because of how we are brought up. We expect our parents to be perfect. In our eyes, they should do no wrong, and should be models of order and perfection. As a parent myself now, I can understand it even better. Children look up to their parents as Gods of sorts, as protectors who must never struggle with anything. But it is us parents who have created these ideas in our children’s minds. Growing up many of us in the Kenyan community had parents who did not show their vulnerabilities to us in honest ways, but pretended they did not exist (even if we saw them clearly), they did not talk about their weaknesses and certainly NEVER acknowledged them. Our parents did not APOLOGISE when they hurt us but ignored it. Why? Because parents must command authority and a show of perfection for their kids. It was mainly a “do what I say and not what I do kind” of upbringing. And as a result, us children expected our parents to the perfect beings they pretended to be and held them to unrealistic standards.
My father’s suicide taught me this. Parents are not perfect. They are human beings. Their roles as our parents do not shield them from the weaknesses and frailties that being human brings with it. If anything, it magnifies it because the pressure of raising a family and children who are looking up to you while struggling with severe things like depression or anxiety or alcoholism or financial strain, makes it worse for most, because of the responsibility of having people look up to you. Children especially can be unforgiving to parents who struggle with these things because it disappoints the impressions their parents gave them about parents.
PARENTS SHOULD BE VULNERABLE WITH THEIR CHILDREN STARTING EARLY
But here is what I’ve found raising my own daughter. I decided never to shield her from the fact that I’m human. I decided to be honest and vulnerable about my struggles and carry a good dose of “FORGIVE ME”. I believe if my father had been open of honest about his struggles, in dialogue and communication, instead of carrying on and never acknowledging his troubles, which were affecting all of us, it would have redeemed the situation for all of us. Children are not fools. They see everything and they get angry when a parent doesn’t acknowledge their weakness and mistakes but instead carries on in denial and without apology or honesty. It makes the child learn early on to be JUDGEMENTAL rather than EMPATHETIC. If my dad had had an honest conversation with us, we would have been more understanding and empathetic and as a family tried to help him. But for whatever reason, be it his own traditional upbringing that a man must save face, or a man never admits weakness, etc., he never got the chance to experience the powerful GRACE of vulnerability and asking for help.
I decided with my daughter to always apologies when I’m wrong, always acknowledge my weaknesses and never pretend before her. And I have found that this type of parenting, teaches a child powerful lessons:
- Mom is human and she makes mistakes. Lesson: No human being is perfect.
- Mom apologizes to me when she is wrong and does not pretend she didn’t do anything. Lesson: everyone makes mistakes, forgiveness is normal and seeking forgiveness improves relationships.
- Being vulnerable is not weakness- you can expose yourself to another human being
- I can feel empathy for my parents rather than judge them when they make mistakes because they have shown me everyone makes mistakes
All in all, being vulnerable with our children actually builds their confidence more than anything. It teaches them that they matter, and that their parents treat them like fellow intelligent human beings. They can be open and free with their parents to discuss anything because there are no secrets and walls created between them of fear and unapproachability.