We can use Google to translate words, but our family is how we learn to interpret the world. That learning process can be mundane, frightful, funny, and even a matter of life and death.
I remember one scene as if it happened yesterday. I am 5 years old. Louie, my favorite uncle, is a mailman. He is used to walking fast, despite his short, uneven legs – the consequence of a childhood bout with rickets. He lets me push the shopping cart on a breakneck grocery excursion. I stray from my task and take another shopper’s cart as we speed down the meat aisle. The incensed victim yells at my uncle to watch me more carefully. Louie, one of the kindest and funniest souls I know, feigns rage at me and whacks me about the head with the store’s advertising flyer: “Damn kid, what did I tell you? WHAT DID I TELL YOU!” as the complainant looks on in horror.
Growing up with Louie, I immediately realize this is playful and I laugh, and so does he. He smiles his broad grin at the angry grown-up, and says, “I’m sorry, buddy.” That first elicits a smile, then laughter from someone who, seconds before, was poised for battle. Young as I was, I sense I just witnessed something remarkable. Rock beats scissors. Wit beats rage.
The first people who help us make sense of the whirling blur that is life are family members. They decode the world for us, imbuing it with meaning (“that’s a doggie”) and often emotion (“doggies are dangerous!”- a message likely to impart fear). They are the early framers of our experience.
Often these family frames are meant to help a child cope with immediate circumstances (“Don’t pick up that broken glass!”), but some meanings can last a lifetime. Some enduring interpretations are gifts; others are something else.
In Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, a father interprets the world for his young son upon their arrival in the barracks of a Nazi concentration camp. He literally mis-translates the grim warnings of the SS prison guard, who is bellowing the rules in German:
The game starts now. The first one to get 1,000 points wins. The prize is a tank. Lucky him! …You lose points for three things: One: if you cry. Two: if you want to see your mommy and Three: if you are hungry and you want a snack. Forget about it!
His rendering of the SS guard’s message was superb: “We play the part of the mean guys who yell.” The translation was wrong, but the interpretation was brilliant. In the horror of a concentration camp, the father’s task is impossible but simple: invent a story that will help him and his son survive.
The film was attacked by some as a mild form of Holocaust denial for presenting the Holocaust without much suffering. Benigni’s father spent three years imprisoned in a work camp in Efurt, Germany, and suffered. Benigni described his screenplay as a combination of his father’s experiences and the writings of Auschwitz survivor Rubino Salmoni. Benigni recalled that his father never told the story of his prison camp experience in ways that would frighten or depress his children. His effort to protect his kids had a profound impact on Benigni. In Life is Beautiful he sought to depict a father’s attempt to shield his young son from the war’s horrors while keeping him alive. The movie is a fable, not a reflection of reality. It portrays the way parents attempt to help their kids make sense of the senselessness life often has in store. A useful frame can help cope with the incomprehensible — in this case, human cruelty.
Thankfully, few modern parents face such impossible conditions, but kids are nonetheless living archives of their family’s interpretations, whether inventive or conventional, expansive or narrow, grateful or bitter. By our words and actions, we help our kids interpret their immediate experience by lending our understanding.
I have listened to countless stories of parents, kids, and young adults in 30 years as a therapist. It is increasingly clear to me that it is impossible to predict which interpretive moments are going to stick.
Which moments helped define your worldview – the lighting on the stage your life is lived on? Which frames, like my early shopping experience, evoke gratitude? Which frames have served to narrow the world in undesirable ways? When you experience something as obligatory that most people would likely regard as a choice, (“No matter what, always cook more food than you need!”) you may be coming close to a family frame.
With our own kids, seemingly fleeting family frames might be the most enduring aspect of our parenting. You never know when your words might be quoted, your actions digested, getting hobbled into “The Truth.” They need us to help them make sense of life’s confusing turns and inevitabilities. This may be our most critical role. The good news is this is effortless. Just from growing up near you, your kids have caught on to the most important values — though you may not get behavioral confirmation just yet.
Some of the most furious arguments I have had with my teenage son ended with one of us quoting something or other from the Marx Brothers (e.g., “Leave, and never darken my towels again!”).
Rock beats scissors; wit beats rage. And I am hoping somewhere a mailman with mismatched legs smiles.
Daniel Griffin is a psychologist, senior teacher and trainer of clinicians, based in Washington D.C.
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