How the Kids Turn Out

EVER SINCE FREUD, the psych biz has been anxiously counting the ways that parents, and especially mothers, influence their children. Even then, it focuses almost exclusively on the early childhood years.

In a novel turn of the lens, a University of Wisconsin psychologist has begun looking at how kids return the favor and influence their parents. She finds that children are a major source of the well-being of their parents during the middle phase of parenting. These are the years beginning when the kids hit their twenties and get up to speed as adults.

Contrary to popular myth, people don't automatically experience a crisis when they hit midlife. But they do begin a process of self-evaluation. For parents, Carol D. Ryff, Ph.D., reported to the American Psychological Association meeting in Washington, the basic question is, how have the kids turned out. The kids' emotional adjustment and educational attainment is so crucial to how parents perceive themselves that Ryff now views the question as a developmental task of midlife.

Parents who perceive that their children turned out well experience a sense of well-being. And the extent to which parents see themselves as responsible increases their satisfaction. The greater sense of responsibility for a child's success, the better a parent sees himself

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Actually, herself. Self-evaluation in terms of children's attainment is greater among moms than dads, Ryff found in her study of 542 grown kids and their parents. If the Freudian legacy decrees moms get the blame when things go wrong, it's only fair that they take credit when things go well.

"Well" compared to what? That's the tricky part. In general, parents felt less satisfied with themselves if they saw their kids outdistancing them. But not mothers who themselves had high levels of education. They were happiest with themselves at midlife when their kids outperformed them.

No matter what parents say to their children, concludes Ryff, their most private parental admonition probably sounds something like this: Do well, my child, but not better than me.

PHOTO: EVERYONE KNOWS HOW VIRGINIA KELLEY'S KID TURNED OUT. (GAMMA)

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