Parenting lessons from Death of a Salesman

We had a change to see Death of  Salesman last week at South Coast Rep. This is one of my favorite shows at one of my favorite theaters (we started subscribing here almost 15 years ago).  If you haven’t seen this particular play, I cannot recommend it enough. It is such a rich character study of a man struggling in the American Dream, and Willie Lohman’s insecurities and resulting tendencies are eerily retable. Willie vacillates between confronting his failures and then creating delusions of grandeur in an effort to avoid admitting them.

Willy was abandoned by both his father and brother at a young age, which leaves him with deep insecurities. This corrodes his character, making him a person desperate for acceptance, but also lacking in integrity. Ironically, this desperation eventually leads to his own son abandoning him.

 

I've seen this play many times before, but this was my first time to watch it as a parent. One of the themes in the play that I had previously missed was the fact that Willy’s worship of Biff had so poorly prepared him for life in the real world. Willy created incredibly entitled sons. He vacillated between over-estimating their abilities and disapproving of their choices.

Biff realizes that because of excessive dreaming and fantasizing about a better future, he lost his grounding in reality. He recognizes that the tension and distress in his family is in part due to the gap between Willy's absurd dreams and real possibility. He asks to be released from Willy's dreams, so that he can create his own – ones that are based on the reality of his situation.When he forces his father to face this reality, it leads to his destruction. Willy is unable to cope with who his son really is outside of the pre-fixed creation of his own mind:

BIFF: I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you. You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like the rest of them! I’m one-dollar an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn’t raise it. A buck an hour! Do you gather my meaning? I’m not bringing home any prizes anymore and you’re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home! (Act 2)

The line of the play that was most poignant to me was when Biff confronted his dad over the instilled entitlement:

BIFF: And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is!

I feel like we are living in an age of entitled parenting, where every parent wants their child to believe they are capable of anything and everything. We give trophies to each player, we protect our kids from consequences, and we bubble-wrap them from failure. The play got me thinking: Where is the line between instilling your children with a positive self image and making them too entitled for their own good? In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman crossed way over that line. I’m still trying to find my balance.

Death of a Salesman plays from August 30, 2013 - September 29 at South Coast Rep. I highly recommend it! It’s a great date night outing – it sparked several hours of conversation between Mark and I, from meaning and purpose to parenting to self-esteem. So many great themes!


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