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The damage that parents can do to their children without realizing it underlies films I’ve viewed recently, reflecting examples I’ve seen in life. I was talking to a friend about his asthma, begun in childhood and carried miserably throughout life. Even given times in which the technical facts about cigarette smoke were not public knowledge, how could his parents have neglected to wonder if their smoking might have worsened if not caused his condition? If they did, why wasn’t that reason enough for them to stop smoking in the home—even if stopping would have been difficult?
Of course, parents can do far greater damage emotionally. In MY OLD LADY (a 2014 film worthy of being excellent stage drama), Kevin Kline and Kristen Scott-Thomas take the roles of adults who must finally grapple with the outcomes from a choice their parents made—assuming the romantic arrangement that was happy for them would work well for their families. It didn’t. The affair darkened three other lives, utterly destroying one and cutting hope out of the other two almost permanently. Ironically, I had just viewed the seventies film AVANTI with Jack Lemmon as a man who elects to follow in his father’s footsteps, taking a long-term European lover. In AVANTI (a comedy) as in MY OLD LADY, the lovers eventually disregard consequences, relying on their discretion to give them license. The potential impact on their children is never a concern—nor is honesty.
In a tragically overlooked, superb film (FRANKIE & ALICE)—that should have been released in 2011 but didn’t surface until 2014—a parent’s choice drives an intelligent young woman into mental illness. The true story of FRANKIE & ALICE stars Halle Berry in a subtle performance that deserves far more attention than it received. Frankie is a stripper who has developed dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities) as a result of a unilateral decision her mother made for her. One of her hidden personalities is a genius-level child and the other a white female bigot. Although her mother meant to protect Frankie from racism, the effects are nearly catastrophic.
When parents forget that their children are not property but thinking individuals, they feel empowered to maintain absolute control or emotional disregard, when they need to talk with the children. Even very young children often display unexpected insight into the nature of love and reality when they’re consulted. I recall one toddler who explained to me in her childish language that her biological mother was embroiled in a bitter custody battle over her—not out of love, but out of spite and possession. I doubt the mother ever considered—or, perhaps, cared—what the long-term ramifications of her actions would be for her children.
Experience and research tell us that we need to be honest with children and keep the doors of communication open by discussing everything—but especially decisions that impact the children—with them. Even if we can’t follow the child’s wishes—and that’s NOT always the best choice, hearing the child’s point of view helps us as parents broaden our perspective. We can see and honor the unique personhood of the developing human being before us. We may realize parents don’t always know best.
Yes, listening to your child is key.