In 1941, Mary Churchill accepted the marriage proposal of a young man named Eric Duncannon. She was young and inexperienced. They barely knew each other. The world seemed like it was ending. It was almost certainly not the right fit for her. Naturally, her parents–the heads of a political dynasty in a time of rigid, aristocratic marriages–were concerned.
And so they were thrust into a situation which so many of us dread (and so often screw up): they needed to convince their daughter she was making a mistake…without driving her deeper into that very mistake. It’s pretty remarkable how well these two parents, used to getting their way, managed to artfully dissuade their daughter.
As Erik Larson details in his book, The Splendid and the Vile (which we carry at the Painted Porch Bookshop!), instead of condemning her daughter, Clementine Churchill simply asked her daughter if she was certain it was the right choice. She didn’t disapprove outright, but she did let her daughter know she had some doubts. Then, understanding that no grown woman wants to be told what to do (let alone who to love) by her parents, Clementine searched for someone her daughter trusted and respected who weigh in on the subject, independent of her influence. She landed on Averill Harriman, one of Churchill’s advisors who was dating Mary’s sister-in-law.
Harriman took the young, impulsive girl aside. “He said all the things I should have told myself,” Mary later reflected. He told her that her whole life was before her. And that she “should not accept the first person who comes along. You have not met many people. To be stupid about one’s life is a crime.”
All this began to sink in with Mary, who then, after a few weeks, decided of her own violation to break off the engagement. It was her idea…but she came to later understand how lucky she was that her parents had helped her get there. “What would have happened had Mummie not intervened?” she wrote, “Thank god for Mummie’s sense—understanding and love.”
There are so many lessons for us to learn here as parents. Our kids are going to do stuff we disagree with, but very rarely–especially as they get older–will we be able to convince them of this by force or fiat. We have to be understanding. We have to be patient…maybe even a little bit sneaky. We have to give them advice and the tools to make sense of that advice, because ultimately they are the ones who have to figure out the right decision for themselves.
Just as we can’t allow our busyness or love for them to cause mistakes that might ruin their lives, we also can’t allow our fears or our desire to control harden them towards doing precisely that.