2005: Perspective - When ‘love’ hurts
There’s nothing easy about being a parent. Children are demanding, life is complex and expectations often go unfulfilled. It helps everyone when the adults in the relationship keep in mind a basic truth – that their kids’ needs are more important than their own. Moms and dads often go overboard in assuming that what they want is what their children want. Trouble happens when moms and dads heap their own desires upon their kids.
Last weekend I spent a depressing few hours reading through a document supplied to the media by Marc O’Hair. He’s the father of PGA Tour rookie Sean O’Hair (one victory, $1.94 million). Seems that Sean is having a better year than his father, and the old man is upset that he’s not getting proper credit for having trained his prodigal son. So he faxed off a 17-page document to various media sources in hopes of vindication.
The text reads like the screenplay for a third-rate Country & Western psychodrama – except that the lead characters are painfully real. It’s got academic transcripts, fatherly advice for bulking up and getting tough, a confessional mode (“I am a recovering alcoholic”), obligatory pot shots at the liberal media and relief that his son didn’t expose himself to the sins of modern college life.
Granted, Marc O’Hair makes a valid point when he takes certain members of the media to task for not doing their homework before writing about him. I’ve never met the man, never spoken with him, and I base these comments only as a response to the document he released for all the world to read and judge.
Sorry, Mr. O’Hair, but your own words provide a clearer indictment of your transgressions than almost anything that has been said about you by others.
This is why smart lawyers don’t let their clients take the witness stand on their own behalf. In the course of protesting your innocence, you’ve provided a textbook example of what many would call parental abuse. Maybe that doesn’t add up to a felony. But it does provide a damnable example of totally inappropriate behavior. The wonder of it all is that young Sean has managed to turn out so well despite – not because – of all the malignant attention heaped upon him.
Some of it was blood-soaked, but that’s apparently OK, because “Sean has a very delicate nose that bleeds very easily . . . it runs in my family. A few times the light slap would catch the nose and it would bleed. There was never any abuse.” Oh, good, I was worried about that. Besides, Marc says, “there was never a slap that wasn’t provoked by something he said. . . . I never enjoyed slapping Sean.”
Some of it was money-grubbing, though Marc O’Hair explains it in terms of an investment in his child. Besides, we’re told, young Sean signed contracts twice – first when he was 17 years old, then again when he was 19 – each time guaranteeing 10 percent of his lifetime earnings to his dad. But dad is actually being generous, we’re assured, because if Sean were a failure he wouldn’t owe a penny.
None of it was loving. Nobody who really “loves” someone reveals this amount of his or her private life. This is more like the love of a self-absorbed narcissist who loves only himself. A narcissistic parent like this wants to mold his children in his own image and can’t accept the fact that they actually are unique persons. It’s really more about control than about cultivating talent. In this case, since Marc O’Hair obviously can’t control his son, he’s trying to establish control over what others think of him. The effort isn’t working. On the contrary, it’s confirming our worst caricatures of the overbearing father.
Marc O’Hair isn’t the first overly aggressive parent to have stage-managed his child. The practice, sad to say, is all too common, whether in Hollywood, on Broadway, or at the admissions office to Juilliard. It’s also evident at your average Little League baseball or Pee Wee hockey game, where kids who just want to be kids are nearly prodded with sticks by parents.
Many of these misguided dads are themselves frustrated, wannabe jocks who feel deprived because they never achieved careers as pro athletes. For whatever reason – injury, lack of talent, improper coaching or simply because reality intruded – they had to put aside their fantasies, earn a living and build a family instead. So they take out their frustrations on their children and call it tough love. And they deny them little things, just to make a point about how tough life is. (“I refused to let him own a pair of jeans he wanted,” says Marc O’Hair.)
We live in a culture that too often heaps enormous rewards upon those with a little more talent or a little more luck than the rest. As if the sports world weren’t competitive enough at the professional level among adults in their 20s and beyond, we now are seeing a more insidious form of competition involving teens and pre-teens.
Much of this is driven by their parents, who egg on their children, lavish them with special training, enroll them in dedicated academies and harass coaches and league officials if their kids don’t get favorable treatment. Worse, they then expect their kids to be grateful for the effort, all of it undertaken in the name of “love.”
Love is paying attention. Love is listening. Love is driving them home from a high school party after they’ve had too much to drink – then waiting to ask questions until the next morning. Love is setting limits. Love is encouraging your kids in what talents they have and what interests they show. Love is letting them play, goof off, be silly and have fun. Love is telling them “no” when something is dangerous, and telling them “yes” when they’ve worked hard for something (on their own) and have earned it.
Most of all, love is helping your kids feel totally safe in your presence. And encouraging them to let you know what they are thinking and feeling. Love also is not demanding that they devote their lives to fulfilling your fantasies for them.