Whoever claims to have no family problems is in denial, Amira El-Noshokaty
finds possible solutions in a bestseller
"My mother's greatest flaw is her fixation on me, always breathing down my neck," 23-year-old Salma told Al-Ahram Weekly. "She barely ever listens to me, either. It's always a one-sided conversation, which makes me yell in an attempt to voice my opinion." But 21-year-old Karim puts it in a different way. "They believe I am young no matter how old I become. Another flaw is their constant demand that I should follow in their footsteps even if I rebel against the very thing they want me to do."
There is more where such complaints come from. And a lot of it -- the arguments, the criticisms, the dynamics of domination -- are dealt with in American sociologist Deborah Tannen's bestseller I Only Say this Because I Love You, which sheds light on parent-child communication, pointing out first and foremost that it is important to decipher the subtext of all high- pitched exchanges, usually starting with a relatively simple question, albeit voiced in an exasperated tone, like, "you're wearing that?" A classic example, particularly common here in Egypt, is this discussion of a night-time curfew:
Girl: I'm going to be late tonight, okay?
Mother: Right. Try not to be late tonight.
In any talking strategy, according to the book, there are two things going on: the message, the literal meaning of what is being said, and the meta-message, involving the history and relationship of those speaking. (In this case: the daughter's feeling that she is entitled to being out late in contrast to the mother's implication that the daughter is late more often than she should be). Tannen speaks of the meta-message being subject to one of two kinds of speech: deficient, which communicates less than the speaker has to say, and exuberant, which says much more. The trick is to strike a balance between the two extremes, allowing the meta-message to be meaningful.
"My dad is the only decision-maker in this house," says 24-year-old Seif. "He believes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that his opinion is the right one." For her part Seif's mother "mistakenly" believes that her son's priority is his friends, not her. Like many others his age, Seif needs breathing space and leans towards freedom governed by responsibility rather than a hierarchical structure. Yet, as Tannen explains, "Mothers and fathers have good reason to be more worried than ever about whether they are measuring up as parents. The parameters for proper behaviour are becoming more and more diffuse just as more parents work full-time outside the home and there are more influences inside the home over which they have limited control, such as television and the Internet. In addition, psychology, which has become widely established as a popular moral code, holds parents personally responsible for their children's failures and personalities." A complex situation, in other words. Seif's father is not autocratic for the sake of it; rather, his attitude reflects his own concerns.
Still, the key to solving family problems lies in a willingness to try new approaches to the ultimate goal of being a big happy family. One successful concept promoted in the book is that of reframing: rethinking a given situation within a different set of parameters, which can break the cycle. A disapproving parent alienates his/her child by simply expressing frustration, but by adopting a new, perhaps unpredictable strategy in addressing the same old issues, both parent and child can help avoid falling into the trap. The former might accept a form of apology other than the set three words; the latter might complete his chores before asking for a favour. "My dad's greatest flaw is his sarcasm. He mocks everything, including my personal life," 23-year- old Ahmed told the Weekly. What makes this difficult is that, contrary to the hypersensitivity and aggression he may show towards his parent, his father's opinion matters a lot to Ahmed, making him attuned to meta-messages. Reframing makes it possible to be conscious of this dynamic, allowing children to listen to their parents as well as their friends (it is reframing that explains why a son will take a friend's advice even if it agrees with his parents' views, which he will automatically reject just because they come from his parents). It is true that one doesn't choose one's family but it is worth noting that the family does not have much choice either.
What's your parents' greatest flaw?
My father's greatest flaw is suffering from delusional persecution. He is usually either the victim or the guilty one.
My mother's greatest flaw is living in denial and failing to adapt to the outside world.
My dad's greatest flaw is that he lives in a world of his own.
My mother's greatest flaw is that she likes to be always in control.
My dad's greatest flaw is his obsessive compulsive behaviour, double- checking the locks at night, every night.
My mother's greatest flaw is her jealousy. She is jealous of all the girls in my life.
My dad's greatest flaw is selfishness.
My mother's greatest flaw is being a nag.
My dad is a dictator.
My mother's greatest flaw is her nervousness.