Children observe their parents more closely, appraise their parents more carefully, and know their parents better than parents do the child. How could it be otherwise? The positional power difference makes this inequality necessarily so.
When another person has more vested power in the relationship, you tend compensate for the disadvantage by scrutinizing that person in greater detail than they do you. You want to get whatever edge of understanding and influence you can to indirectly manage (or manipulate) the other person who has greater force of direct control. So in organizations the subordinate knows the superior better, in peer groups the follower knows the leader better, in society minority knows majority better, in marriages the abused knows the abuser better, in prisons the captive knows the jailer better, and so on.
Parents vastly underestimate how closely they are observed and how constantly they are evaluated by their child. In the vanity of their superior position, parents prefer to think they know the child best, and perhaps this is for the best. Otherwise, being the object of such keen and relentless scrutiny might make parents too self-conscious for their own comfort.
From childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, however, the judgmental thrust of this evaluation tends to change. The child tends to idealize the parents, the adolescent tends to criticize the parents, and the young adult tends to rationalize the parenting received. Here's how it often works.
The child (up to ages 8-9) admires, even worships parents for the capability of what they can do and the power of approval that they possess. The child wants to relate on parental terms, enjoy parental companionship, and imitates the parents wherever possible. The child wants to be like and to be liked by these adults who are mostly positively evaluated (assuming they are not damaging or dangerous to live with.) A child identifies with parents because they provide the primary models to follow after and to live up to. So childhood evaluation of parents begins with idealization. At the outset, parents are usually too good to be true, at least for long.
Now comes adolescence (beginning around ages 9-13) and parents get kicked off the pedestal. In the girl or boy's childhood they could do no wrong, come adolescence it seems they can do no right. What has caused this sudden fall from grace? Have parents changed? No, but the child has, and with cause.
To begin the separation from childhood (and from parents and family) that starts adolescence, the young person has to reject some of the old lifestyle that branded him or her as 'child', thus freeing up growing room for the journey to independence ahead. Through attitude and actions the young person is saying, "I no longer want to be defined and treated as a child anymore."
To this end, part of adolescence is about giving up some of the "good child" and letting more of the "bad child" out. "Bad" doesn't mean evil, immoral, or illegal; it simply means more abrasive to live with—becoming more critical, dissatisfied, argumentative, passively resistant, moody, distant, less cooperative, and less compliant to live with. This transformation, however, cannot be accomplished without a negative change in the reputation of parents as well.
Like it or not, parents who have grown accustomed to being perceived in positive light by the adoring child, must now accept being cast in a more negative one by the faultfinding adolescent. The early adolescent needs to have "bad" parents to justify letting his or her "bad" child out. "Well it's not just me who's become hard to live with, you have too!" And now, for example, parental company in public becomes more problematic. To be seen in their presence by friends diminishes the sense of social independence, while parental habits and characteristics can be personally embarrassing. "Do you always have to dress that way?"
So adolescent evaluation becomes more critical of parents and, with increased conflicts over freedom, remains that way through the rest of adolescence, partly to justify the independence from parents being sought. "You're being unfair!" "You never let me do anything!" "You're overprotective." More complaints are the order of the day, and in a way, this is not a bad thing. After all, if parents weren't considered difficult to live with, why ever leave?
And now, in the early to mid-20s, adolescence ends and young adulthood begins, bringing with it a period of self-evaluation that soon implicates parents. The young adult question is simply this: "Why did I turn out the way I am?" In answering this question, the young person looks back over personal history and begins to identify significant events, and particularly influential people that shaped his or her development.
This is where parents come into focus. By commission and omission, how did they contribute to the young person's growth? The answer is both positively and negatively, because no matter how well-intended, the best that parents ever provide is a mix of strength and frailty, wisdom and stupidity, good choices and bad.
At stake for the young person is coming to terms of acceptance with having imperfect parents who provided not just help growing up, but also hurt. This process of reflection is by now conducted when apart from parents when the young person is leading a separate life. The hard part of this process is the beginning because before the positive parental influence can be claimed, the negative influence must be acknowledged, and this requires rationalization—putting into a place an understanding that can encompass the mix of positive and negative influences parents provided.
"My parents weren't perfect. Love me as they did, they made a lot of mistakes. Caught up in themselves, they weren't always there for me when I needed. And they made some decisions like divorce which really hurt and that have had lasting effect." During the negative acknowledgment phase of this evaluation, it is not uncommon for the young person to socially pull away and reduce communication to evaluate painful history, resuming contact when positive evaluation is at last put in place, when significant parental contributions are at last acknowledged. "But you know, they worked hard to take care of me, hung in there with me when the going got tough, shared some good times worth remembering, and I know they tried their best."
The negative phase of young adult evaluation can be scary for parents when contact and communication fall away, but if they can be understanding, patient, and hold themselves in loving readiness, rationalization usually leads to reconciliation as acceptance is gained and a meaningful adult relationship carries on. In my book, "The Connected Father," I wrote about one such reconciliation, and quote it here (pp. 116-117).
"A father at a workshop of mine many years ago explained it this way: ‘One rose at a time,' he called it. ‘She was about 23, our daughter, when without explanation, she cut off all communication with us. Stopped coming to see us. Rarely answered our phone calls, and when she did abruptly told us that she'd call us when she felt like talking, and to please not call her. At first, we felt really hurt, then really angry. What had we done to deserve such treatment? Then my wife said something really important: ‘Suppose this isn't something painful she's doing against us; suppose it's something painful she needs to be doing for her.' So that's what we decided it was. And to let her know we loved her and were thinking about her, every week I sent her a single red rose with a card that read: ‘We love you.' And I did this for about seven months until one day she called, said she wanted to come over and see us, and she did, and we've been lovingly back together ever since. Of course, I asked her about the roses, curious to know what she did with them. ‘At first,' she said, ‘I threw them away. Then I gave them away to friends. And finally, I started keeping them, signs that you were keeping me in your heart, one rose at a time.'"
When it comes to how those on the receiving end evaluate our parenting, we were never as good as our children wanted to believe, or as bad and our adolescents frequently complained. Mostly we turned outperforming about as well as one young adult, after some hard reflection, explained: "My parents weren't perfect, more of a mix, but I've decided that's okay. After all, I wasn't perfect either."
At issue is not parents necessarily agreeing with the young person's assessment of their parenting, just accepting that the evaluation rings true for their grown child.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence (Wiley, 2013).
Next week's entry: Adolescence, parental disappointment, and parental guilt.