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Heidi Stevens: Love and respect trump a parent’s imperfections

There’s a lovely passage about parenting tucked inside “A Hologram for the King,” Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel about a lost soul whose midlife setbacks mirror those of recession-ravaged America.

The book, dubbed “Death of a Globalized Salesman” by The New York Times, is only tangentially about parenting; the protagonist, Alan Clay, pens tortured letters to his daughter, Kit, whom he can no longer afford to send to college. But a portion of one letter has me questioning the way I’m raising my kids.

“Kit, you know the key to relating to your parents now? It’s mercy. Children, when they become teenagers and then young adults, grow unforgiving. Anything but perfection is pathos. Children are judgmental on an Old Testament level. All errors are unforgivable, as if a contract of perfection has been broken. But what if one’s parents are granted the same mercy, the same empathy as other humans?”

Will my children grant me mercy?

Anything but perfection is pathos.

Where would they get that idea?

My kids harbor no illusions of my perfection. I asked them the other night at dinner, inspired by Eggers’ book, which I just finished reading.

“You know how sometimes it’s hard to see your parents as regular people who have feelings and make mistakes?”

They stared at me.

“How it sometimes seems like parents are supposed to be perfect?” I continued.

“Not really,” my daughter answered. “You make mistakes all the time.”

My husband stifled a laugh. I struggled to remember my point.

“And mistakes are OK, right? That’s what I’m talking about!”

Again, the stares. This wasn’t going as planned.

I guess kids know their parents aren’t perfect. But do they know we’re human?

“Parents have this desire to be so pleasing to their kids, and for their kids to never be uncomfortable or unhappy or disappointed or have a social setback or a bruised feeling,” said family therapist Wendy Mogel, whom I called the next day. “It’s a terrible agenda; good intentioned but impossible to achieve.”

Many of us, she said, push aside our hobbies, our health, our identities to act as butler, Sherpa, concierge, ATM, short-order cook and talent agent to our kids. And then we wonder why we’re exhausted. And a little ticked off.

“What happens so consistently is parents are nice, nice, nice, enraged,” she said. “It becomes a mutual indignation competition, where the kids’ currency is to complain about their parents, and the parents’ currency is to feel demoralized about their children.”

I would like to avoid this, I told her. What if I encourage them to ask me about my day when I pick them up from school?

“I’d rather hear them say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and not slam doors and not interrupt when you’re on the phone,” she says. “I’d rather have them flush the toilet and . not leave their shoes where someone can trip.”

Well, me, too, obviously. What does this have to do with reminding them I’m human?

“The point is empathy and sensitivity and kindness to others,” Mogel said. “It’s about family citizenship and communal responsibility.

“It’s careless and insulting on the part of the child and does not demonstrate empathy for parents if children aren’t doing their part to keep operations running smoothly.”

I think this is huge. We’re teaching our kids how to live, which means growing their minds, stretching their imaginations and keeping them active, fed, balanced.

We’re also teaching them how to love.

We get first crack at their hearts. They love us truly and, if we’re lucky, for life. But there will be others - partners, friends, in-laws and, maybe, children of their own.

I want my kids to love with all their energy. I want them to love with compassion. I want them to know that errors are both inevitable and forgivable. I want them to show mercy.

If I don’t teach them that, I’m not sure who will.

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