My Parent, My Choice

Sometimes, you can’t seem to escape a trending topic. A number of summers ago, shark attacks featured in newspaper and magazine articles and on electronic ‘breaking news’ flashes. When the frenzy died down, it turned out that the number of shark attacks was standard for that time of year.

So, it is with a bit of skepticism that I greet the headlines I am seeing about grown children cutting off contact with their parents. Parental estrangement surely happens, but is it truly escalating dramatically? I’m not sure. However, attention breeds copycat episodes and the number of therapists and psychiatrists giving harmful advice certainly is growing. My guess is that this is and will be an increasing phenomenon.

In asking why this is so, a few thoughts come to mind. Leaving aside extreme cases of serious parental abuse where even adult children might be in incontrovertible danger if they stay in touch, I will wager that no one stopped speaking to his or her parent because one generation voted for Eisenhower while the other generation preferred Adlai Stevenson II. Trump derangement syndrome, on the other hand, is quite real.

Here is a less obvious reason. After Roe v. Wade was decided, we frequently heard the slogan, “My body, my choice.” This was a less accurate but more appealing mantra than, “My body, another body, and mine takes priority.” Even for those who opposed abortion, that concept of bodily ownership took hold.
In the decades following that pronouncement, awareness of child sexual abuse took center stage. Rightfully, parents were encouraged to make their children aware of what requests and approaches to them were safe and which should not be tolerated. Yet is it possible that we lost important nuance?

Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, parental advice pages proliferated with discussions about not forcing little children to accept Grandpa’s hug or Grandma’s kiss at family holiday get-togethers. Doing so would teach the child to ignore his or her body’s discomfort, leading them to be more easily abused in the future. Could there be unexpected consequences of such dogmatism?

Did a generation grow up learning, from this and other lessons, that they were the center of the universe? Only their feelings counted; everyone else was secondary to them. Would it have been so complicated to say to a child, “We are going to see Mommy’s Uncle Henry today. He is probably going to pinch your cheek. He used to pinch mine when I was your age and my cousins, and I hated it. But – he is from an older generation, and I expect you to greet him politely and let him pinch your cheek. It would hurt his feelings if you ran away from him, and it would be wrong to be rude to him. In our family, we show respect to our elders.”

Could a seven-year-old or even a four-year-old truly not understand the difference between that and the idea that if someone approaches him in private and tries to touch him inappropriately, he should get away and tell a parent? We don’t expect even young children to have black and white thinking on every issue. For example, rather than restricting them from ever touching a crayon, we explain that crayons draw on paper, not on walls. And we supervise them closely until they can integrate that message.

Pediatrician Leonard Sax tells of a mother bringing a very young child into his office. When he asked her to open her mouth so he could examine her throat, she refused. He turned to the mother and requested her help. To his shock, she answered, “Her body, her choice.” Is this child learning to be safe or learning that she is the sum total of her existence? When she—and her mother—are both older, why should she give up her free time and disturb her self-centeredness to be a giver to her mother rather than the taker she was at age three? She has been raised to believe that her feelings are the deciding factor in what she does or doesn’t do. If her mother’s choices or needs don’t make this child-in-an-adult-body feel good, why shouldn’t she cut her off? Quoting the Fifth Commandment to her would be as absurd as expecting a quote from a Shakespearean sonnet to guide her life. Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt Not have never featured in her life.

John F. Kennedy’s maxim, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” sounds quaintly charming at this point rather than serious. Instead, we are encouraged to ask what entitlements our country owes us and trained to focus on increasing that benefit. “Ask not what your parents can do for you, ask what you can do for your parents,” was the Biblical message that was taught over the ages. It should not surprise us that it, too, is being relegated in many circles into the domain of butter churns and buggy whips.

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