I was happily unaware of the e-mail that retired Royal Navy officer Nick Crews sent to his son and two daughters in February, expressing his and his wife’s disappointment in them, until an attorney brought it to my attention during my legal ethics seminar yesterday. Apparently the screed made Crews something of a folk hero in Great Britain. In other news, the Brits elevate jerks to folk heroes just like we do.
Crews decided that he and his wife had reached the end of their ropes with their three adult children’s career and domestic misadventures, so he felt what the kiddies needed was a swift kick in the pants, old school. He wrote all of them a withering e-mail denouncing them as failures and fools. Some samples:
- “Which of you, with or without a spouse, can support your families, finance your home and provide a pension for your old age? Each of you is well able to earn a comfortable living and provide for your children, yet each of you has contrived to avoid even moderate achievement. Far from your children being able to rely on your provision, they are faced with needing to survive their introduction to life with you as parents.”
- “None of you has done yourself, or given to us, the basic courtesy to ask us what we think while there was still time finally to think things through. The predictable result has been a decade of deep unhappiness over the fates of our grandchildren. If it wasn’t for them, Mum and I would not be too concerned, as each of you consciously, and with eyes wide open, crashes from one cock-up to the next.”
- “I can now tell you that I for one, and I sense Mum feels the same, have had enough of being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of our children’s underachievement and domestic ineptitudes. I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about.”
As Crews himself has admitted, he was substantially absent from home during his children’s upbringing, which he and his wife, in the charming British way, entrusted to boarding schools. Once the chips of the old block were safely locked up in Wickhamtonshire Academy or the Duchess of Spillwyck’s School for Young Ladies, he rarely wrote them. Now, however, he seems to believe that the sole objective of their lives ought to be to please him. He wants to see their “success” and “achievement.” I’m sure they do as well. Making old Dad proud, however, should be, and probably is, among the least of their legitimate concerns.
My late mother, who was, unlike Crews, a devoted and attentive parent her whole life and thus had a bit more standing for such misbehavior, had her moments like this. During one particularly long period of career crisis and unemployment, I received an emotional phone call from her to the effect that I just had to get things together because she couldn’t stand it any more. I think I hung up on her. It is fine to care about others, root for them, feel their pain. It is grossly unfair to burden another human being with responsibility for your satisfaction and happiness.
Much of the praise heaped on “the Crews Missile,” as wags have dubbed the attack e-mail, is based on the father’s concern for his grandchildren. The irony is thick here, too thick for Crews to detect it. His own parenting choices have helped create a trio of struggling, unfulfilled children, yet he feels that he has justification to attack their parenting skills. If he had all the answers, he wouldn’t be writing his obnoxious e-mail. He is offended that his children don’t ask for his sage advice. When did he work to create the kind of relationship with his children that would encourage them to do so? When they faced the inevitable crisis in school, was he ready and willing to play Ward Cleaver? To the contrary, he was satisfied to leave them to their own resources, and wait for them to find ways to make him and “Mum” proud.
When one’s children are struggling—Hell, when anyone is struggling—-the productive and ethical way to reach out is to offer kindness, understanding, sympathy, a willing ear, and, if asked, advice. To denounce someone who seems to be making poor choices, and worse, to claim that one’s own expectations are among the casualties of those mistakes, makes a bad situation worse, and adds justifiable resentment to the mix. Crews’ letter reads as if his primary concern isn’t the welfare of his children or grandchildren, but rather his personal legacy and sense of self-worth. Commander Haw-Haw in the Officer’s Club smoking lounge has all these wonderful tales to tell about the exploits of little Nigel and Cornwallis, and poor Crews is embarrassed that he can’t match them. Damn kids!
Crews isn’t a hero; he’s an ethics dunce. His e-mail is just a tantrum, showing that the emotional immaturity he accuses his children of suffering from may be one of the few character traits he was around them long enough to pass on. His message isn’t inspirational or a spur to action; it’s parental extortion: “Make us proud, or else we won’t love you.” He claims to be calling them out on their lack of responsibility, but what his words really do is expose Crews as the selfish, inept parent he was and is.
All my life, I have been periodically roiled by the guilt of feeling like an underachiever. During one such period many years ago, I was confessing these feelings to my Dad, who dutifully ticked off the many things he felt I had accomplished so far that he admired, and then deconstructed the entire concept of “under-achiever” with typical skill. Then he said,
“You know, Jack, you always will have my unequivocal respect and admiration, no matter what you do or don’t achieve. You’re my son. That’s all the achievement I care about.”
He meant it, too. And that statement has given me the resolve to take risks and embark on adventures, as well as the balm I have needed when the risks led to disaster and the adventures turned into nightmares. It is the message I want my own son to remember as he finds his own way. Life is tough. I’m here to help. But never feel that you have to achieve anything to deserve your father’s love and regard.
The entire Crews e-mail is here.
Graphic: The Telegraph
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