When Parents Don’t Turn Out Right : Elders: You can’t measure up to suddenly adult children; best to regress with the grandkids.

<i> William Aiken lives in Blacksburg, Va</i>

I was not asked to give a graduation speech this year. That makes 60 years in a row. An awkwardness has crept into my children’s lives through no fault of their own. They have been watching my slow development for years and are getting pretty sick of it. Somewhere along the line, the lure to competence in a recognized field passed me by.

When parents don’t turn out quite the way their children had hoped, there is a poignant sense of lost opportunity. They look at us and their eyes bunch up with disappointment.

I thought I was moving along pretty well until my daughter told me that my driving abilities had diminished greatly from when I taught her to downshift. Now when I drive her new baby around, I am nervous the whole time, worrying about corners that are too sharp and stops that are too abrupt. Also, my daughter’s New Age parental monologues make me a little uncomfortable, as she talks of developing a child who is “powerful and creative,” looking dubiously at my part in the gene pool.


I have a son, 23, whose suits are tailored in New York. He told me the other day that the buttons weren’t quite right. I can hear him now, fresh from rattling the doors of investment bankers in New York and Washington, politely stifling a yawn on the telephone as he asks, “What’s up with you?”

I think the doubts began to arise around the time my youngest daughter visited some Mennonites in Pennsylvania who had black chrome on their Mercedes so as not to be ostentatious. They also had a plane that they hid in the woods. She wanted to ask these people down to our place for the weekend. Now she wants to mandate a green revolution wherever she goes, listens only to National Public Radio and quotes Native American poetry to me. Meanwhile, a whole range of behavior I had thought perfectly reasonable has become “unacceptable,” She subscribes to the Cherokee idea that whatever I do must cause no harm for seven generations.

I thought “appropriate” and “inappropriate” behavior was reserved for things like tea parties, but now these concepts are invading every area of my life, and the looks from my children begin to circle above me like buzzards over a fresh find.

Apparently I got away with a lot of stuff for years. Now I find I am not funny enough, not friendly enough, not open enough to new experiences. People of my age, they tell me, should be more commanding, more poetic, more filled with joie de vivre. I lack the exhilaration of the good life. And to cap things off, I am not alert to their emotional needs. There is a whole generation of older people who have not seized on the world the way they were supposed to.

Lately I have been reading Foucault’s “Culture of the Self” in a pitifully belated attempt to fit in with new priorities and remake myself in a more tolerable parental image. But even here I have been unsuccessful, and instead of changing for the better, I stumbled upon a lame justification for my state: Some ancient philosopher was telling Foucault, “Know what is the source of your gladness.”

Well, this I could understand. I remember I was glad the day Matthew took straight sets from me in tennis after years of throwing his racket at me. I was glad when Beth tirelessly tried to teach me the Charleston at an Iranian wedding reception, oblivious to the sorrowful gaze of bewildered onlookers. I was glad when Kathy said to me, “You know, Dad, the trouble with you is you don’t take enough delight in people.” My children don’t realize that as they view the sick thing I have become, I approach the full flush of parental triumph.


They still come around, of course. I know this because after they leave I am missing my new gray T-shirts. But I think they come around mostly to talk with their mother and assess my decline. Meanwhile, I have been spending a lot of time with my granddaughter, Aisha. We talk about the circus and McDonald’s. She’s 6 and still views me with a certain indulgence. I also have a lot of hope for my grandson. He just turned 2.