op-ed: 5 things i’ve learnt from my family’s mistakes

April 18, 2014

For most people, living away from home awakens a new appreciation for family and the efforts of our parent(s) when it comes to our upbringing. While I can write up a list as long as my arm of the ways that my family have fought to protect and nourish me while putting up with my crap at the same time, I couldn’t help but try and uncover what it was that made me so resentful and why these reasons took so long to manifest. As a 21-year-old adult looking back at my younger self and knowing all the things I do now, I have come to understand the misunderstandings of my loved ones and how they affected my persona and habits growing up. This is a list of what I have learnt from these misunderstandings.

By Tash Vals, AFROPUNK Contributor *

  1. Vulnerability doesn’t always equate to weakness.

When I tell people that I am the youngest and only female in my family, I’m surprised at the envy I’m met with. In a way I suppose I was very lucky; my brothers were incredibly popular in my area which pretty much granted me an express pass to the same fate, and anybody who so much as side-eyed me risked a black eye courtesy of my brothers or their friends.

When you grow up with impressionable boys who are being taught every day that showing emotion makes you a sissy however, they tend to pass on those ideas. Whenever I would get upset they’d mock me and unsympathetically tell me not to cry. Not to be a baby. This did teach me how to grow thick skin and maintain control over my emotions which is of course a very useful skill to take into adulthood. But this managed to manifest itself into a hardiness that completely suppressed any emotions that I felt would convey weakness, which obviously isn’t good.

  1. Crippling self-consciousness is no better than arrogance.

My best friend spoke of her upbringing and said that her mother frequently rained praise and compliments on her which meant that she was never insecure – or not to the same extent as most adolescences perhaps. Speaking to her, the first thing you notice is how self-assured she is – how confident of her positive attributes. I used to get annoyed with her when she would say things like “wow my butt is amazing” while looking in the mirror. Like, how dare you love your body? Have you no courtesy for those who don’t love their own? I soon learnt that this kind of confidence is a good thing. My mother never put me down and of course she had lovely things to say, but not quite enough. I was rarely ever told that I was beautiful –not because she didn’t think so – but because she kind of just expected me to know that. It just would have been nice to be reminded sometimes.

  1. Always give praise when praise is due.

A lot of children from traditional African (and even Asian) families can relate to the chronic feeling of inadequacy- the feeling that your worst is apocalyptic and your best is mediocre. Whenever I accomplished something I knew I’d worked my ass off for, my father would kind of shrug it off and mutter a half-hearted ‘well done’ in a way that said ‘well duh you weren’t supposed to get a B.’ As frustrating as it was, I preferred this method to my mother who saw the shortcomings in every triumph. That test percentage could have been a little higher or that new recipe you’ve slaved over for hours could have been just that little better with some extra salt. Neither of them could ever just say, ‘Sweetheart, I’m proud of you.’

  1. Fishes cannot climb trees.

If I could start again I would have probably studied Interior Design. I love décor, I love envisioning a home out of some wooden flooring and bare walls and I love colour schemes and feng shui. I love it all. Or maybe I would have done Events Management. Been a wedding planner, or something like that. Or I wouldn’t have gone to university at all. There are so many good television industry apprenticeships that I’m not entitled to because I’m ‘overqualified.’ But I when you’re 16 years old and go to the leading Catholic school in your area, AND have traditional ethnic parents, it is drummed into you constantly that you HAVE to go to university and you HAVE to get a worthwhile degree. I do English Literature and yes I’m okay at it, but why be okay at something you’re kind of interested in when you may be amazing at something you really enjoy?

  1. Some men can be trusted.

If you are a female, I am certain you have heard the ‘don’t trust boys’ speech. You know how they all only want one thing and will say anything and everything to get that one thing and this is all that matters to them?

This advice is one that definitely comes from a place of love and protection, but can have damaging effects. Growing up I was always more comfortable around boys, something which my brothers began to notice and misunderstand. In a bid to protect me they fed me horror stories of naïve girls who gave up their goodies and were abandoned promptly afterwards, and although this often is the case, the message that was instilled into me as a result was that I wasn’t good enough for somebody to actually like me for me.

During my adolescence any male who was remotely even courteous to me was up to something– it never registered to me that some of them may actually find me funny, or smart or cool to be around. What I should have been taught instead was how to discern the good from the bad rather than being made to believe that the good didn’t exist.

The point of retrospection isn’t to point fingers or harbour resentment. What we forget is that our parents in particular were born in completely different generations so naturally they take what they understand about the world and pass that onto you because this is all they know. What we can do is appreciate how much our family has been of value to us and/or take their mistakes (however bad) and convert them into lessons we can carry forward.

* Tash Vals on Twitter: @ohlookitsTash