Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers

Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers

by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot


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From growing their children, parents grow themselves, learning the lessons their children teach. “Growing up”, then, is as much a developmental process of parenthood as it is of childhood. While countless books have been written about the challenges of parenting, nearly all of them position the parent as instructor and support-giver, the child as learner and in need of direction. But the parent-child relationship is more complicated and reciprocal; over time it transforms in remarkable, surprising ways. As our children grow up, and we grow older, what used to be a one-way flow of instruction and support, from parent to child, becomes instead an exchange. We begin to learn from them. The lessons parents learn from their offspring—voluntarily and involuntarily, with intention and serendipity, often through resistance and struggle—are embedded in their evolving relationships and shaped by the rapidly transforming world around them.
With Growing Each Other Up, Macarthur Prize–winning sociologist and educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot offers an intimately detailed, emotionally powerful account of that experience. Building her book on a series of in-depth interviews with parents around the country, she offers a counterpoint to the usual parental development literature that mostly concerns the adjustment of parents to their babies’ rhythms and the ways parents weather the storms of their teenage progeny. The focus here is on the lessons emerging adult children, ages 15 to 35, teach their parents. How are our perspectives as parents shaped by our children? What lessons do we take from them and incorporate into our worldviews? Just how much do we learn—often despite our own emotionally fraught resistance—from what they have seen of life that we, perhaps, never experienced? From these parent portraits emerges the shape of an education composed by young adult children—an education built on witness, growing, intimacy, and acceptance.
Growing Each Other Up is rich in the voices of actual parents telling their own stories of raising children and their children raising them; watching that fundamental connection shift over time. Parents and children of all ages will recognize themselves in these evocative and moving accounts and look at their own growing up in a revelatory new light.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226188409
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/22/2016
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 1,041,363
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is the author of eleven books, including, most recently, Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free. She is the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University.

Read an Excerpt

Growing Each Other Up

When Our Children Become Our Teachers

By Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-37727-8



    I wonder how long
    Was that violet dancing
    Before I saw it?
    (haiku 662)

    The blue of this sky
    Sounds so loud that it can be heard
    Only with our eyes.
    (haiku 265)

    Only one faint star,
    One yellow-windowed ship
    And one heaving sea.
    (haiku 324)

    Just enough snow
    To make you look carefully
    At familiar streets.
    (haiku 521)

    Not even the sun
    Can make oak tree leaves as green
    As the starlight does.
    (haiku 114)

Richard Wright

There is beauty and subtlety, detail and precision in this string of Richard Wright's evocative haikus. He helps us focus on small changes, on little differences that make a big difference. He makes us pay attention, readjust our lenses, pause for a moment to smell the roses. He asks us to be present to the slight, almost imperceptible, shifts in the landscape: to the violet dancing, the sounds we hear with our eyes, the snowy streets that do not escape our notice. He suggests that we break our habits, resist our well-worn categories, and be open for surprise as we take in the world around us. He shows us the art and the science of careful looking, the discipline of observation, and reveals his keen appreciation of the ordinary. Wright is the consummate witness, attentive, spare, and exacting as he offers his poetic testimony.

The stories parents tell about their children's pedagogy often refer to the ways they have learned to embrace the "role of witness." Like the lens of a poet scanning the landscape, parents begin to develop a perspective that is watchful, discerning, patient, somewhat removed but fully engaged, a stance that will allow them to learn who their children are and what they need through witnessing them in action ... observing and appreciating the way their children learn, love, and engage the world ... noticing the way they build and sustain relationships ... watching their values and moral judgments made real through their actions. In these stories, we hear the children's voices urging their parents to become observers, asking them to notice the small changes, be prepared for surprise, and be present in the moment. As they take on the role of witness, parents learn to listen, not instruct or fix; they learn to be strategic in their timing; they learn restraint. They learn to back off and create a space that allows them to paradoxically be "in the moment" with their children even as they watch them grow and change over the long haul. They begin to gaze down from "the balcony" rather than get caught in the midst of the fray. They learn to carefully read the ways in which the changing context — social, relational, cultural — shapes their child's character, experience, and behavior. And they learn to give testimony to what they have witnessed, letting their child know that he has been seen and heard.

When parents become discerning witnesses, their views of their children are enhanced by a quality of mind that Ellen Langer calls mindfulness. An innovative researcher and social psychologist, Langer claims that mindfulness can deepen and enrich human experience and propel development and growth. She urges us to "see" and notice the details and subtle changes beautifully documented in Wright's haiku verses; she wants us to become consummate witnesses of our changing world. Langer explains the generative power of mindfulness by comparing it to its opposite: mindlessness. When we are mindless, she argues, we are like programmed automatons, treating information in a single-minded and rigid way, as though it were true regardless of the circumstances. When we are mindful, we are open to surprise, we are oriented to the present moment, we are sensitive to the context, and liberated from the tyranny of old mindsets. Openness, not only to new information but to different points of view as well, is another feature of mindfulness, and "once we become mindfully aware of views other than our own, we start to realize that there are as many views as there are different observers." This suppleness of mind and openness of heart, then, is also a part of bearing witness.

There is, in witnessing, the powerful and quiet relational dimension of "being present," attending completely to what is happening in the moment — sometimes fully engaged, sometimes bearing silent witness, often asking for nothing in return. In my book Respect: An Exploration, we meet Bill Wallace, an Episcopal priest, a pastoral psychotherapist, and an AIDS activist who speaks about the witnessing that is core to his work and about how it was his patients who taught him the lesson of "learning to do nothing." As part of his doctoral training at the William Hall Psychiatric Research Institute, for six months Bill was assigned to the ward with patients who had Huntington's chorea, a horrible disease of the nervous system in which people "wither away before your eyes, and there is nothing that you can do to help them." Eventually they die; there is no way of arresting the disease. Bill was the only one on the interdisciplinary team "who could not do anything." The doctors and the nurses could "poke, prod, and give medicines," he recalls. "All I could do was be present." He paints the morbid scene for me. "I'd walk into the day unit. This was one of those so-called well-appointed sixties buildings ... concrete slabs, turquoise panels, pretty furniture, sturdy carpets ... and I would find four or five patients sitting in the sunroom ... just sitting there, not able to talk, drooling, shaking, wobbling, swaying back and forth."

When Bill first arrived on the unit, he would talk to the patients. He even tried to get them to talk to him. He recalls the frustration and disappointment of those few weeks. "I tried talking to them, telling them stories, but it was like throwing green peas at tapioca. I didn't get anything back. They couldn't understand who I was. All they could relate to was my presence. So I just learned to sit with them." Bill is shaking his head as he remembers this "most important learning experience of his life": not talking, not doing anything, just being "present" with the patients. He admits that learning to "not do anything" was particularly difficult because he kept on hearing the echoes of his father's harsh admonitions: "My father used to say that if you weren't doing something, you were no good."

Once he learned how to "do nothing," the attention that Bill offered the sunroom patients did not anticipate response or reciprocity. They could not return his smiles, his conversation, even his eye contact; and Bill had to discover within himself the selfless, generous gesture that does not expect or demand reaction. This is a rare and difficult discipline. I suspect that we all offer our smiles expecting ones in return. We coo at babies on airplanes because their eager babbling will bring us pleasure. Sustaining attention when you know that no audible or visible response is possible, but when you believe your presence is needed and experienced, is another matter; and it is a crucial dimension of respectful witness.

Interestingly, even though Bill Wallace claims that he initially wished that he was one of the doctors in the sunroom who had skills that would be useful, and perhaps curative, to the patients, who could "poke and prod and give medicine," it may well be that even those people whose job it is to "do" something, need to learn the discipline of witnessing. In his lovely book, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande claims good medical care requires that physicians practice what he calls diligence. Diligence is more than competence; it is attentiveness to the small changes, to the specific moment, and an awareness of the resources and people that you have at hand to respond in that moment. Gawande admits that diligence can sound boring, dull, even prosaic, especially when we imagine the bold heroics that may be part of rescuing people and saving lives. But, in fact, it is the opposite; it is a readiness to respond, a watchfulness that grows out of genuine caring, "a virtue" that is "moral in nature."

Gawande writes: "What does it take to be good at something in which failure is so easy, so effortless? When I was a student and then a resident, my deepest concern was to become competent ... as a doctor you go into this work thinking it is all a matter of canny diagnosis, technical prowess, and some ability to empathize with people. But it is not, you soon find out." Diligence is, for Gawande, the first of the three core requirements of good medicine (the other two are "doing right" and "ingenuity"). Diligence is "the necessity of giving sufficient attention to detail to avoid error and prevail against obstacles. Diligence seems an easy and minor virtue. You only have to pay attention, right? But it is neither. Diligence is both central to performance and fiendishly hard." As Gawande describes diligence and the role it plays in making people better, I hear the connections to witnessing and mindfulness, to being fully present. I hear the discipline required to always remain vigilant, watchful, and open to change; I hear the balance of routine and improvisation; and I hear the ways in which it is not necessarily about "doing anything."

When parents take on the role of witness with their children, they need to be able to "see" them clearly; they must not have their sights distorted by faulty or idealized images, inaccurate pictures that might reflect their wishful thinking, their disappointments, their fears, or echoes from their own childhood, ghosts from their past. (Bill Wallace was haunted by the disapproval of his father as he tried to learn the power of being present to his dying patients.) As a matter of fact, cognitive psychologists who study parental development have pointed out that part of the work of parenting is learning how to cast aside faulty, worn-out images of one's children, images that no longer resonate with or reflect who they are. The dissonance between the old picture of the child that is no longer relevant or accurate and the new one that is emerging as real becomes an opportunity for parental growth.

In order to experience the dissonance, however, parents must see and take in the subtle changes in behavior; they must be diligent in listening for the shifts in their children's voices and actions; they must be fully present and ready to not do anything. They must listen for "the sound so loud that it can be heard only with our eyes." "Can I get a witness, oh my Lord" is the first prayerful line of a Negro spiritual. It echoes with the same urgent request children make of their parents every day. Listen to me! See me ... bear witness to my personhood, my humanity. In this chapter, we hear the pleas of young people asking their parents to listen, to pay attention, to be present; and we see parents taking on the role of witness and testifying about how their clear-sightedness has revealed new, and often extraordinary, qualities and virtues in their children.


The virtues of witnessing — remaining quiet, still, and attentive — are at first hard for Rachel Goldstein to grasp. She learns her lesson, "the long, hard" way, after years of enduring unrelenting badgering from her oldest daughter, Sasha. By far the most "different and difficult" child of her three daughters, when Sasha turns fifteen, there are fights between them every day — screaming matches that never seem to end. Underneath all of her ranting, Rachel finally hears Sasha's urgent plea. Her daughter is asking her to listen; asking her to pause and take in what she is saying; asking her to not talk over her or come with a prepared script. More than anything else, Sasha wants to hear herself talk, and through talking, she hopes to learn what she is thinking and feeling. Rachel has always been the kind of person — and mother — who has wanted to "fix" things, make things right. But her daughter is not asking for her intervention or her guidance; she is not seeking advice or asking her to "do" anything. Rather, Sasha is wishing for an attentive, receptive, quiet response from her mother, a response that is soothing and silent. And it turns out that Rachel also learns to listen to her own inner voice, guiding her toward new spiritual journeys, opening up ways of witnessing the subtle beauty all around her.

At fifty-one, Dr. Rachel Goldstein looks much younger than she is — a youthfulness that reflects her incredible intensity, curiosity, and verbosity. She is a short, heavyset, pretty woman, with long curly brown hair pulled back from her face, bright gray-blue eyes behind wire-framed glasses, a smile that reads as both elusive and welcoming, and an infectious energy that she seems to try — without success — to tame. She is usually dressed in her white dentist coat and flat dancer shoes that allow her to move swiftly from one examination room to the next. But this afternoon, when we meet at the end of her day, she has put on a heavy Nordic sweater and wrapped it over her ample frame. She sits in the kitchen in her office, at a small round table across from me, with her cup of mint tea, eager and ready to talk. She is an "explorer" and an "adventurer" who relishes any opportunity to experience new things and examine things unseen, who seems to be chronically engaged in self-reflection. She is a lifelong learner on a "spiritual quest."

Rachel is also an empiricist who seeks and trusts data and evidence. Many times during our interview she says, "I require proof." Trained as an engineer at the University of Virginia, she went on to study dentistry at Tufts and then do postdoctoral research at MIT. She loves the science and the technical aspects of dentistry, keeping up with the latest tools and techniques of her trade and pursuing the latest scientific advances. She also enjoys the "artful form" that results from having "good hands" and being technically skilled at "making things." She gets great pleasure out of seeking and finding perfection in a bridge well-crafted or a filling expertly executed; and her standards are very high. She works to blend form and function, art and science, aesthetic and technique in her practice every day.

Rachel has three daughters — ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-three — to whom she is deeply devoted and with whom she communicates several times a day, through e-mail and text, Facebook and Twitter. She is a techie who loves the immediacy, spontaneity, and connectedness of the latest tools and appreciates the ways in which these media are transforming human experience. Perhaps she is one of only a few parents her age that might be more of a techie than her children. At one point, for example, she tells me that Facebook has become the "collective unconscious" of our society and world, "crossing boundaries and borders that used to divide us," erasing hierarchies and obstacles that have obscured our paths forward as individuals and as a society.

Her oldest daughter Sasha is a graphic artist and illustrator, now living in Washington, DC, trying to start a freelance business; and when Rachel thinks about lessons learned from her progeny, it is to her firstborn that she turns. Sasha has been the most different and the most difficult of her three daughters. Their differences grow out of their temperaments and orientations, but Rachel boils it down to the bold contrasts. "She is the artist and I am the scientist. ... I am a type A personality and she is a processer." When Sasha was a young adolescent, she would pick fights with her mother that would last forever despite Rachel's efforts to remove herself. "She would fight on and on, and I would want to stop and have it over. I can't remember what we were fighting about ... all I know is that there was no escaping her." Rachel had tried to follow the counsel of the dozens of books she had read on adolescence that suggest that parents remove themselves from the battleground. But when she would leave the room Sasha would follow her, continuing her rants. And when Rachel would try to escape to the shower, her daughter would come into the bathroom and draw back the shower curtains. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

It was many years — years filled with heartache — before Rachel began to hear something urgent and pleading in her daughter's raging encounters. She began to see that Sasha was not asking for her opinion or her guidance; neither was she asking her mother to solve anything. She was simply asking her to listen to what she had to say, without prejudice or judgment. Rachel's voice is almost a whisper as she recalls this hard-won discovery. Her eyes look weary. "I wasn't listening to her. She just wanted to be heard ... I am a fixer. I wanted to find the solution and have it over and done with." She sums up the critical lesson that grew out of the years of conflict. "So from Sasha I learned to listen and hear more. ... Now I try not to stop her from talking and confronting me. ... I force myself to open my ears and my heart. I even try to repeat back to her what she seems to be saying. ... I say 'it sounds like this is what you are feeling.'" Rachel is quick to say that, even though she now knows it is important to listen to Sasha hash it out, this is a lesson she has to continue to learn and practice. It requires an uncommon amount of restraint and patience that are hard to come by given her type A personality. So she constantly needs to monitor herself, even though she knows in her mind the best way to proceed.


Excerpted from Growing Each Other Up by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Copyright © 2016 Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: A Pedagogy Composed by Children

1 : Witness
2 : Growing
3 : Intimacy
4 : Acceptance

Conclusion: Cross Currents

Suggested Further Reading

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