The words of recently deceased, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison had a huge impact on my life — first as a student, then as a parent. In graduate school, much of my research focused on her powerful novels — especially Beloved — that explored slavery and its aftermath. Later, as a stay-at-home dad, I saw her appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and once again her words hit me hard.
During that appearance, Morrison captured the nature of a parent’s unconditional love: “It’s interesting to see when a kid walks in a room, your child or anybody else’s child, does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for.”
She continued in her strong yet soft voice: “When my children used to walk into the room when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up. And so you think that your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. What’s wrong now? But then, if you [try], as I tried from then on … let your face speak what’s in your heart. Because when they walked in the room I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.”
To this day, “Light up!” has been one of my parenting mantras. The sentiment underscores the importance of daily family reunions. As much as possible, try to be mindful of how you greet your children, no matter the context. Before all else, take a moment to welcome them back to the relationship. Light up first; concerns or nagging can wait.
In family life, we tend to be better at goodbyes than greetings. We train ourselves to say farewell, give hugs and mark each parting. In the meantime, our greetings often become lackadaisical, lackluster or just plain lacking. Especially as my children became tweens and then teens, I admit it became harder not to take them for granted. But as much as possible I try to remember the “light up” that came naturally at every reunion when they were babies. (If it helps, consider dogs for inspiration. They embody the “light-up-at-every-reunion” mantra.)
Parenting mantras can come from a variety of sources
The more I thought about Morrison’s “light up” mantra during my parenting journey, my mind kept linking it back to another formulation, this time from Morrison’s novel Beloved. The novel details the traumas of slaves and former slaves in the mid 1800s. It features a ghostly character named Beloved, a victim of infanticide at the hands of Sethe, her mother, who is desperate to keep her daughter from slavery. Sethe’s mother-in-law warns her daughter-in-law that she has too much “motherlove,” and “good is knowing when to stop.”
Though the mantra “good is knowing when to stop” has an extreme meaning in Beloved, from a different vantage the phrase ties in with the “light up” mantra. As Morrison explained, when your child enters a room, save your concerns for later. In other words, “good is knowing when to stop” whatever you are doing and show your children how happy you are to see them again. Phrased differently, “good is knowing when to start communicating concerns to your child—and it’s not upon a child’s entry into a room.”
Another meaning of “good is knowing when to stop” entails a parent’s quest to provide his or her child with just the right amount of support and guidance as they get older. As the father of two teens, I can vouch for the difficulties of every parent’s gradual transitions from ultimate protector to valued teacher to tolerated coach to fading consultant. In many ways, parenthood is a series of weanings — for both parent and child.
But thanks to Toni Morrison, I try to “light up” at the beginning of every stage of parenthood, then strive to “know when to stop.” Feel free to strive for the same.
What parenting mantras do you live by?