One day when I was seven–years–old my father allowed me to choose our Sunday family activity. He said we could either take a drive across the Mississippi River or ride on the last streetcar in St. Louis. At that time of my life I had never seen an ocean or even a great lake and I was awed by the vastness of the Mississippi River. It never occurred to me that the river would always be there and the streetcars might not. I chose the river. Of course, driving across the river took all of fifteen seconds. Immediately after we crossed the bridge I regretted my decision. My regret at the time was that the streetcar excursion would have been lengthier. My regret later was that I never again had the opportunity to ride a streetcar in St. Louis.

My father could have protected me from my regret and sadness. He could have taken me on a streetcar anyway or have convinced me that I had made the wrong decision. However, he allowed the decision to stand and allowed me to deal with the consequential emotions. I don’t know what he intended, but I do believe that he was trying to be a good father that day.

I learned a great deal from that decision. I didn’t learn it all at once but over time I came to realize the value of this single incident. I learned that I could tolerate the outcome of a decision even if I didn’t prefer such an outcome. I learned that I didn’t have to be protected from emotions. And I learned that things aren’t all good or all bad. In particular, I realized that my father with his many limitations could teach me a valuable lesson and that I could love that part of him even though I couldn’t accept the rest.

Many people may disagree with my father’s actions. They may feel that he should have protected my feelings. However, I think this was one of the most unselfish and loving moments of his life. As parents we frequently overprotect our children from feeling unpleasant emotions because we don’t want to feel bad or uncomfortable ourselves. It is unpleasant for us to see our children unhappy. As a result we may protect them even when we know the more important lesson for them may be to experience the situation and the consequences.

For example, a parent may excessively warn his child, “If you touch the stove you will get burned.” If the child hasn’t learned this lesson after a few warnings, she’s probably not going to learn it with a hundred. However, if she touches the stove and gets burned she will probably learn the lesson. Now, certainly I don’t mean this to apply to all situations. Obviously, a parent doesn’t allow a child to play in the street to learn the lesson that a car may hit him. A parent has to use judgment as to what lessons a child is ready to learn. However, parenting involves teaching those lessons even though it may be painful for the parent.

As a society, we are terrified of feeling any kind of “bad” feelings. We don’t want to feel sad or hurt or angry. We come into this world as babies wanting all of our needs met. When we feel uncomfortable we cry until someone makes us feel better. This is normal development. However, sometimes we cry because we are bored or we demand to be taken care of when we can do it our-selves. Over time, if all of our demands are met, especially the unreasonable ones, we learn that discomfort is intolerable and we have to rid ourselves of it. We come to believe that we should never feel bored or sad or deprived.

We have developed a distorted concept of happiness. Our culture as a whole focuses upon striving for happiness. We frequently believe that if we are not feeling ecstatic joy that something is wrong with us. We are a culture of sitcoms where problems are solved in a half hour and families are always functional or, at least, happily dysfunctional.


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