Damaged or Destined?
February 22nd, 2010

Young Ted Kennedy and his father.

For the past several weeks I have been (slowly) making my way through Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, True Compass.  He was a man about whom I knew precious little as a child; only by his family name as a young adult; and increasingly by his own reputation into my adulthood.  When his brain tumor was diagnosed in the spring of 2008 I started paying more attention to his history and influence.  My attention span increased further when he endorsed and, throughout his illness, actively campaigned for then-Senator Obama.  When he passed away last August I had significantly made up for my prior ignorance.  But it wasn’t until I read his book that I realized how woefully uninformed I still was. 

As a Kennedy there is clearly a big story to tell.  The wealth and privilege.  The fabled family.  The tragic loss of three brothers and a sister at ages far too young.  The life of public service.  The scandals.  The legacy.  But despite all these things, it was a passage on the 40th page of this 500+ page book that made the deepest imprint on my mind. 

My father’s voice was paramount.  He was never abusive, never wounding toward any of his children, but he had a way of letting us know exactly what he expected of us.  Once, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old Dad called me into his room for a chat.  I must have done something that prompted the conversation, but I don’t remember what it was.  But he used phrases so concise and vivid that I can remember them word for word nearly sixty-five years later: “You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy.  I’ll still love you whichever choice you make.  But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you.  You make up your mind.  There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.”

I returned to that passage multiple times as I made my way through the rest of the book.  I noted the page number on my bookmark so I could easily find it.  I became mildly obsessed with it.  I cannot fathom what it must have been like to hear words like those as a teenaged kid just trying to find some sunlight in the shadow of your overwhelmingly impressive family.  And now, as a parent, I cannot fathom saying those words to any child of mine; particularly at such a tender and impressionable age. 

However, whether or not you agree with their politics, it is difficult to deny that the Kennedys set an unparalleled example of public service in this country.  Given that there have been many wealthier families who did not enter the public sector in droves, I believe it is fair to surmise that it was more than the financial edge afforded by family money that buoyed the Kennedys into these positions.  Clearly there was something about the way they were raised that spurred them to lives of service.  And statements such as the one above made by the senator’s father solidify that suspicion.

Throughout the book Senator Kennedy writes with sincere affection for his father.  But beyond that he writes with admiration that borders on reverence.  His father, along with his brothers, was a pillar in his life whose approval he worked ceaselessly to earn.  And despite the fondness that his words convey, I can’t help but wonder what frailties his relationship with his father suffered due to such profound expectations.     

Ted Kennedy is not the only man to achieve “greatness” whose relationship with his father was strained, distant, or altogether absent.  Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama all fit this bill.  And so I am prone to wonder what it was about the way that these relationships affected this collection of men that served as a catalyst for achievement rather than dereliction.  Federal penitentiaries are filled with men whose paternal relationships were equally strained and didn’t take the high road in response.  Where does the fine line reside that separates the damaged from the destined?

I believe in many of the principles that the Kennedy family has stood for, service being foremost among them.  As GAP and I raise our family I would be proud to see any of our children choose such a path.  But at what cost?  Could I bring myself to tell my son that my interest in his life survives only to the extent that I find his choices sufficiently “serious”?  And even if I could bring myself to speak such words (which I proudly doubt), would I want to?  Twenty years from now, as he enters adulthood and the parent-child power dynamic begins to soften, do I want IEP to see me as a dominant figure whose approval he covets?  Or would I rather our adult relationship be closer to friendship; something comfortable we can share and enjoy?

I find Ted Kennedy’s relationship with his father troubling.  I certainly would not be comfortable in it, and I don’t intend to parent in that way.  But I admire Joe Kennedy’s ability to impart the value of service on his children to such a profound extent.  (As an aside, I do not mean to shortchange the Kennedy daughters by omission.  Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics.  And Jean Kennedy Smith founded an arts foundation for mentally and physically challenged children and also served as the US Ambassador to Ireland.)  However, I aim to find a kinder, gentler mechanism for fostering such values than the blunt instrument of ultimatum. 

As for these men who’ve risen to political peaks (I’m sure comparable examples are plentiful in the business, sports, and entertainment industries as well) I will continue to wonder what aspects of their relationships with their parents drove them to achievement versus failure versus something in between.  And I will wonder if it is possible to find a hybrid version of the same; an emphasis on service and philanthropy, but absent the cost of a dysfunctional relationship.  Is this too much to ask?  Surely these qualities are not mutually exclusive.  Perhaps my naïveté betrays me?  Check in with me in twenty years and I’ll tell you how things panned out.

7 Responses to “Damaged or Destined?”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    Such a thoughtful post. I was moved by Ted Kennedy’s death and wrote my own thoughts on him as a man and as a myth.
    I did not realize, though, the role his father played – that passage that you cite certainly is incredibly powerful. It makes me wonder about the ways that we pass on our expectations to our children, both explicitly and implicitly. It is the latter that I worry more about – what kinds of things are we teaching them they ought to value and aim for without even realizing it?
    A good reminder to pause and think that through.

  2. Anne Says:

    Really fascinating…thanks for teaching me something valuable this Monday morning!! I guess I do have one reaction though…success does not necessarily mean these men weren’t troubled by their paternal relationships. People can be driven to success, and still harbor conflict with the people in their lives. Who knows if that was the case, and I admire the sense of resonsibility in these folks. But like you, that’s a conversation I wouldn’t have with my kid…maybe a milder variation…but just because Ted was successful, doesn’t mean it didn’t wound him on some level. But again, we can’t know.

  3. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Terrific post. The passage you highlight is no doubt fodder for meaningful conversation about parenthood and expectations and legacy. I am not as troubled by it as you are though. Perhaps because I have had similar conversations (much more mild) with my own parents, I can interpret this exchange as evidence of tough love. I think it is okay for parents to nudge their kids toward greatness, to voice opinions. I do not think it is okay for parents to write their children off if they don’t reach a threshold of seriousness. I say all of this not having read the book and knowing close to nothing about the father-son relationship about which you write. On a more general level though, I think that we are allowed to want our kids to do big things, meaningful things and to express this to them with love. What complicated, important questions. Thank you.

  4. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Your post, followed by Aidan’s comment, made me reflect further on a conversation I had recently with Husband. We had a mild disagreement about our roles in shaping our son’s choices, in particular his aesthetic choices. I have always defaulted to the idea of letting kids make as many choices as they can, as long as they are safe and healthy ones. My parents modeled that approach for me. But I wonder if allowing so much choice can actually quell ambition – and if a more pronounced push every now and then might help our kids to be more successful. I’m not sure, but now I wonder.

  5. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    That quote sort of horrified me! It sounds really cold. Calculating.

    Maybe I’m just overreacting because my parents always told me what they thought I should do/be.

  6. Amber Says:

    That quote is rather harsh. I know that my father pays attention to all of his children, regardless of their choices. Perhaps, though, Ted’s father was stating a truth. A truth that we don’t want to acknowledge. As parents, we are more likely to recognize our child’s accomplishments, right? So, when one child is busy accomplishing, and another child isn’t, who do you talk about? I’m not saying this is right, just an observation.

    I hope, though, that I can equally praise my children. I have had too much experience with sibling resentment and jealousy.

  7. parwatisingari Says:

    Its so strange and so well put, I think we strive for that approval, all our lives, no matter what public has to say it is the parental approval we strive for. As mitch albom notes in his book for a day more, when we have it without working for it we have no value for it.