Aging Parents: Father Knows Best

In honor of Father’s Day and fathers everywhere, of every age, living or not, I share these thoughts.

Robert Young and Jane Wyatt, Father Knows Best courtesy Wikipedia

One of America’s popular radio programs, Father Knows Best,  (first aired in 1949) became a favorite TV program in the 50’s and 60’s. The TV version has been called “a classic  of American Pop Culture at its best.”

In those days I definitely thought my father knew best. And today when I called a colleague who taught in my school district (both of our fathers are now gone) and said “Happy Father’s Day, I bet you’re thinking about your father like I am about mine,” she responded “Yes, he was a wonderful father. He was a very practical man, and he was always right.” The last part of that sentence came as a surprise.

Pursuing the subject I asked if she could think of an example. Without hesitating she responded: “I wanted to teach in an Army school in Europe. It was before Viet Nam and I had already been accepted for a position teaching music at a school on an army base. I imagined myself in one of the larger cities. My father said “I don’t know why you’d want to go–you’ll be in some little town out in the middle of nowhere, not the big city you’re imagining.” That didn’t stop me. But he was right. I taught at an army base out in the middle of nowhere, but I don’t regret it.”

I, too, thought my father was always right. He was the smartest man I knew–even after meeting so many brilliant professors in college. In fact it wasn’t until I was 23 and unmarried, that my dad gave me some piece of advice about the men in my life, and I realized he was mistaken–wrong. It took me aback. Looking back it was no big deal. But I’ve obviously never forgotten it.

In those days, before Women’s Lib (later 60’s) and divorce reached the million mark (mid-197o’s), men were assumed to be “head of the family.” Early on in our marriage my husband recounted a story about his parents having a conversation in front of him. His father looked at him and asked  “Who’s the boss, son?”  My husband, who was 5 at the time answered: “You are–aren’t you, Dad?” That was then. He remembers his parents laughing.

Today, as we know, so much has changed. “Father Knows Best” wouldn’t be taken as gospel. Women head many families. (In 2011 about 13 percent of women over age 18 were the heads of their households, according to Women’s Health USA 2012.)

While husbands and wives today often share child rearing and other household responsibilities, there remain older men (plus younger men and men from other cultures) for whom “Father Knows Best” is of utmost importance to the way they see themselves–their self-image. Yet there comes a time for everyone–sooner or later–when father doesn’t know best about everything any more. Indeed adult children begin to know best in some (or most) instances.

So what do we learn and how does this impact our helping fathers and grandfathers age well? When “the time comes” we no doubt recognize it–or have recognized it, right? It’s such a delicate balance: preserving an aging parent’s dignity and self-respect while knowing we have the answer. How can we do/say things in such a way that an older person thinks it’s his idea; or he likes the way we’re presenting something and “buys into the idea,” keeping his self-worth and pride in tact? Since feeling pride and self-worth are major factors in healthy, happy aging, doesn’t it makes sense to keep this this in mind as we (or at least some of us) morph into “know-it-alls?”

We just need to know when–and how.


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