Sunday, April 22, 2018
Parenting & Relationships

Strike a balance between tough love and true compassion

I wanted tough love and compassion.

Despite having two father figures in my life, I got too much of one and not enough of the other.

My stepfather, Danny, whom I've known most of my life, once uttered, "I wish I hadn't been so overbearing in my opinions regarding what I wanted for you in life."

These words caught me a little off guard.

"I saw your potential and I didn't want you to sell yourself short. I didn't want you to struggle in life like we did. I knew what would be available to you, if you applied yourself."

He certainly had his opinions regarding my dreams and career choices.

Then, there was dating. No boy — and I do mean not one — was acceptable. Every single one had something wrong with him. He swore he could tell all of someone's personality flaws based on the socks he wore or the way a shirt was tucked in. And of course, the handshake. Which everyone failed miserably because he was so intimidating.

I got pregnant at 18 and decided to get married. This decision left my stepfather and I on virtually no speaking terms for at least six months. And even after that, words were just a formality.

He loudly and clearly expressed his disdain for my choice in a partner. It was no secret and my husband knew it.

When I spoke to my dad, Larry, he lived by one solid rule: "Good advice is bad, and bad advice is fatal."

So throughout my entire life, he never spoke an opinion on anything I did. He would only hug me and praise me for doing what I was doing.

I knew that these ways of dealing were extremely opposing and not very rational. I longed to hear my stepfather say "I'm proud of you" and my father say "What on earth were you thinking?"

I wanted honest feedback. I wanted diversity. I wanted guidance without judgment. I wanted to be supported and pushed simultaneously.

I felt like I wasn't doing right by either one.

Now I'm in the middle of these same pivotal times with my own kids, and I struggle with my choice of response.

Are we supposed to sternly object to the date they bring home for dinner? Are we supposed to deter them from certain jobs and choices?

I don't know that either of my fathers were successful in deterring me from anything. I think where they were successful was in what they taught me fundamentally, ethically and morally.

I learned more from what they did than what they said, and to be honest, sometimes those lessons came by bad example as well as good.

The last thing my stepfather said to me during that last conversation was this:

"If I had just kept my mouth shut, you would have been more inclined to come to us and admit you had made the wrong decision. Instead, I made the pain of the consequences you had to suffer greater than having to be wrong and hear "I told you so."

He was referring to my marriage, and the family suffered with that dynamic always simmering just under the surface.

He was right, of course. I wanted to prove them wrong with a marriage that lasted 60 years.

Yet, my ex-husband and I agree we should have parted years ago.

So, with my two teenagers now at dating ages, and one of them approaching the age that I became a parent, I ponder every word, praise or critique.

I certainly don't want any of my children to feel the need to live their life in such a way that they prove me right while suffering to prove me wrong.

Even if we know the outcome, because history repeats itself, we want our children to feel they can come to us without condemnation or fear of humiliation.

At any point in life, I want my kids to be able to come home and feel no shame in swallowing their pride — if they need it. That's more important than being right, for either one of us.

Heather Tempesta is a single mother of three who lives in Brandon.

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