[ photo: Porthcurno Beach, Cornwall Karen Roe 08-03-2005 ]
Somewhere in the heavenly realms of a galaxy far, far away, there may exist a pantheon of parents who never fight with their children, never get annoyed by them, never wonder why their sons or daughters do not take their advice, and never wish their children would act differently. Back here on planet Earth, however, things are different. Disagreements between parents and children, particularly teenage children, are as common as broken shells on a beach.
Some disagreements with our children and the arguments they incite may be inevitable and even necessary for our relationships to grow. But some are unwarranted and hurtful. How can we avoid those arguments that are neither good for our children or our relationships with them? One way we can do this is by remembering how we were with our own parents when we were the age of the children we are having difficulty with.
To help us remember what we were like, we can use the Naikan method, which involves asking three basic self-reflective questions: What did I receive? What did I give back? What troubles and difficulties did I cause?
Starting with your mother, you can ask, “What did I receive from my mother when I was my child’s age? What did I give back to my mother at that age? What troubles and difficulty did I cause my mother when I was that age?”
If, for example, you are having trouble with a 14-year-old daughter, you would ask “What did I receive from my mother when I was 14? What I give back to my mother when I was 14? What troubles and difficulties did I cause my mother when I was 14?” Or, if you are struggling with a 17-year-old son, you can ask “What did I receive from my mother when I was 17? What did I give back to my mother when I was 17? What troubles and difficulties did I cause my mother when I was 17?
It is often best to focus on one question at a time. When you first try Naikan, you might concentrate on the first question for five minutes or so, then the second question for another five minutes. Then spend ten minutes trying to answer the third question. Because the third question is the hardest, it requires more time than the first two questions. You may write your answers down, but it is not required. Time permitting, you may also focus on these questions for longer periods of time, but 20-minutes is a good starting point.
On a different occasion, after you have used these questions to reflect on who you were in relation to your mother, switch and do the same with your father: “What did I receive from my father when I was 14 (or whatever age your child is)? What did I give back to him when I was that age? What troubles and difficulties did I cause him at that age?”
The first time you try this you may discover something important about who you were as a child. Going back and trying it more than once can lead to even deeper insights.
As a child you were your own distinct person. You had your own unique relationship with your parents that differs from the one your child has with you. Despite that, you may find similarities between you and your child. You may find that you too took things your mother did for you for granted and showed little appreciation. You might remember how you helped your father with something or how he did things for you that you had forgotten. You may recall that you lied to your mother, or caused her difficulty when you neglected to do something, or made her worry when you did not follow her wishes.
Of course, you might discover other things instead. The point of this Naikan exercise is not simply to find out how we were once like our children. Rather, its purpose is to lead us to greater self-knowledge of who we were as well as who we are. By knowing our lives and ourselves better, we are more likely to become both the parents we want to be and the parents we want our children to have.