Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Is a Child’s Behavior Always a Reflection of His Parents?

We blame parents for how their children behave and develop

Six-year-old Ethan was a smart, active boy who had been, until very recently, unconditionally sweet and easy to get along with. But lately, Ethan had been acting extra bossy on the playground, telling friends they were playing certain games “wrong” and mildly bullying the younger kids. He was never violent, but he wasn’t especially likable. His mom, Fiona, was working hard to figure out what was bothering Ethan, and talking to him about what it means to play well with others. But in the meantime, she got the sense that the other moms were blaming her for Ethan’s acting out. She felt embarrassed—but she couldn’t really fault them. Who else, she thought, could possibly be responsible?

We’ve long held a tendency to blame parents for how their children behave and develop. Though we most often fault mothers more than fathers, the idea is the same. If we’re good parents, our children will turn out okay. If we’re bad parents, well, they won’t. Though research has proven that childhood development owes itself to many influences, we can’t seem to help but assign blame to one party—that is, us—and it’s created a generation of parents who judge themselves, and each other, by how their children do.

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But to what extent are children really reflections of us? To some degree, they are, certainly. But not to the fullest degree we often assume. Still, it’s a hard notion to shake. When they’re acting out in the supermarket or throwing a fit on the playground or being cruel to other kids, we worry what everyone around us is thinking, fearing the worst: What sort of mother is she? Can’t she control him? Even if, of course, we didn’t teach him to behave in such a way. On the flip side, we celebrate how much they’re like us when they’re excelling in sports or on school tests, or unexpectedly considerate to a stranger. We bask in the assumption that others will see in our child’s successes our own superior parenting.

This is why we too often push our kids into activities they might not otherwise choose, or impress upon them personality traits that may not come so naturally. One friend of mine insisted, from the time her daughter was old enough to write, on having the girl craft long, involved thank you notes. A good thing to teach, certainly. But when she insisted her daughter write and rewrite the cards over and over until she got it “right”—not wanting people in her life to receive subpar thank you notes from her offspring—she was going too far. It became less a lesson on courtesy than a way to satisfy her own high standards or prove to others how well-mannered her daughter was. And that’s the key: Figuring out how much we’re motivated, as parents, to encourage our children to do things that satisfy our own needs rather than theirs.

When we do that—that is, parent our children according to our own requirements, desires, or standards of how things “should be”—we often deprive them of developing a solid sense of self. We stifle their innate creativity and urges. What’s more, we may subconsciously deliver the message that they will only earn our love by being just like us. Though his 7-year-old son, Alex, moaned and groaned every time he was due to go to soccer practice, dad Tyler would continue to encourage Alex to play the game, talking to him about the importance of fitness, teamwork, and appreciating the outdoors. But the second Alex displayed an indifference to his piano lessons, Tyler gave him the green light to quit. Tyler was a high school athlete; throughout his youth, soccer was important to him. Piano? Not so much. The underlying message to Alex, though, was that the commitments that mattered—the ones worth pursuing—were the ones that mattered to Daddy. But where was Alex in this equation?  

Once kids reach school age (and for many of us, even sooner) they are away from us many hours a day. We have less control over the things—and people, and behaviors—they latch onto. Of course, it’s always important to take note of, and work to curb, any undesirable qualities that pop up, but being away from parents is a good thing. It gives kids room to grow and explore in new ways. We will still be the most influential people in our children’s lives, and inevitably they’ll pick up some of our mannerisms, ideas, habits, prejudices, and talents. But they don’t have to be—shouldn’t be—our mirror image. 

It’s not easy to admit that our children’s every action is anything but a direct result of something we’ve said, done, or taught. Nor is it easy to allow them the freedom to make some of their own choices. This can include how much time and effort they put into studying for a spelling test, how they choose to express thanks, or what they choose to wear. There will be times when they get it wrong. But it’s important to remember that those failings aren’t actually failings, but part of the process of learning, growing, and becoming one’s own self. Sometimes they may embarrass us. But they will also make us proud.

This first appeared on Huffington Post

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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