I can vividly recall a Sunday school class when I was quite small about keeping promises. The heart of the lesson challenged all the kids in the room to think about how they’d respond if their parents said they would do something and then later came back and said they couldn’t. That happens? I thought to myself. My young, naive mind found it illogical that a parent would not be able to do something. Parents are parents: the only way they’d make a mistake is if they got hurt or tied up–incapacitated like Superman by kryptonite.
One of the most essential parts of growing up is understanding that your parents are not perfect. When you’re small, they can sure seem like superheroes. You’re wholly dependent on them for survival and growth. They’re doing a poor job of parenting if they don’t closely nurture and protect you. For those who parent well, imagining them with a cape is only a small step.
But sooner or later their flaws will show. They drink too much. They have a short fuse. They’re a workaholic. They make terrible decisions with money. It’s hard for them to love. The magical consciousness of early childhood can only cloud deeper realities for so long.
My own parents separated when I was just starting to settle into my teens. Their marital struggles and eventual divorce taught me a lot about how relationships can break down, and how the dark side of human nature can emerge even in your own home. I learned a lot about what not to do as a human being, and specifically what not to do as a significant other and spouse.
That’s not meant to be an indictment of them. Every parent is imperfect because human beings are imperfect. It’s just that our relationship to our parents is so uniquely based on trust and care that, as children, we often don’t figure that out about them until we’re more grown up. They teach, guide, and nurture us, and we take their view of the world and their role in it as complete, flawless, and true.
When we become adults ourselves, it’s entirely possible to remain in a relationship of trust and care with our parents. It’s a different kind of trust and closeness. They may want to continue to give you guidance and support, but you see more clearly now that what they have in mind won’t work for you, is misguided, or that they’re not a trustworthy authority on that. You have the autonomy to listen or not listen. Follow it or reject it.
And, interestingly, if you do have an honest and open relationship with your parents as an adult, you may be able to help them become better versions of themselves. Maybe they have trauma from their own childhood that they’ve never worked through. Maybe they’ve become stagnant in their career and they need a loving push to start a new chapter in life. Maybe they have an addiction that they’ve yet to overcome. Adult-to-adult, you may be able to keep growing in your humanity together: careers, travel, worldview, wholeness, and more.
We will all come to discover that our parents are not superheroes–they’re human beings. That realism is a good thing. The sooner we perceive their humanity–seeing their imperfections and struggles–the sooner we begin to build empathy for them. We are all at the whims of human nature. Parents are just a little further down the path. Learn from their journey, and if you’re lucky, you can journey with them well into your own adulthood.