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Is Parenthood Doomed?

Back in Boston, a friend of ours came over for dinner one day and told us that she was going to attend a week-long program to “undo” the effects of her parents. This program, called Hoffman Process,

“…brings into awareness the counterproductive beliefs, perceptions and emotional needs that have been adopted from parents…”

Our friend was working on her third masters degree at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. This program was available to the students with funding from alums. My first reaction was, “sounds like hocus-pocus.” As our dinner conversation went deeper and deeper into the subject, I changed my mind.

Think about the people you know well. Maybe yourself. Then think about these people’s self-confidence, interactions with others, ideas about achievement, friendship and spirituality, household routines… Do you see parental halos in them? Pay attention to emotional habits, particularly the bad ones. In these things, people often mimic their parents’ habits, or behave in a violent reaction to them. If a program lets you at least recognize, oh, I’m acting this way because my parents did such and such or raised me in such and such way, that has a lot of value. We’re products of our parents more than we like to admit. A mother’s comment about weight can alter eating habits for life. Most of us, conscious or not, seek approval from our parents even after we’ve grown up.

The irony is thick. These Harvard students, having reached the pinnacle of academic achievement, must be the pride and joy of their parents. The most prestigious of all bragging rights. Those parents must have done a great job raising their kids, right? But there they were, these students, going into therapy to undo what their parents had done to them.

If you take your blinders off and observe beyond the superficial, you must see broken parent-child relationships everywhere. Of course, good relationships do exist, but they’re not as common as one would expect. I can’t help but wonder if the parent-child relationship is doomed from the beginning.

Here’s one way to look at it. Ever since condoms became widely available, people have children primarily as means for self-fulfillment. I, myself, wanted children because I thought it was one of the essential life experiences. With emphasis on the word experience. Much of the current topics on parenthood: Tiger moms, diaper-free babies, etc., when you boil them down, are about creating the best experience and end product for the parents. When a child eventually grows up, he or she will surely have a violent reaction to this. In the age of individualism, nobody wants to be object of someone else’s fulfillment. Then, on top of this, we have impossibly high expectations for parent-child relationships. There you have it, a recipe for problems. The Harvard students going through the Hoffman Process illustrates this vividly: Parents fulfilled with their children attending Harvard, while the children searching for their inner individuals by identifying and removing their parents’ imprints.

Perhaps, when it comes to raising a child, parents have to be completely selfless. In their interactions with their children, they should be entirely driven by the children’s pursuit of happiness. But parents are humans, too, and this is not possible for most people.

Like every young parent I know, I say to myself, I hope we don’t screw this up. But are we just kidding ourselves? What if the cards were already stacked against us when we decided to have kids?

Notes After All the Comments: Touchy subject! I realized that it’s impossible to read this post as a social commentary without it sounding critical to the relationships with your own parents and your own children. I didn’t mean to do that. But I’m glad I brought it up. There’re too many broken parent-child relationships. Not from outright parental abuse, but from motives and actions that are seemingly innocuous, but damaging still. When you think about the fact that many people in their last days in life have regrets about their children, it’s important to talk about how to make these relationships healthy and make them powerful and enduring sources of happiness. Obviously I don’t really believe it’s truly doomed. But I do want to point out how hard it is. And I do believe that parents bares the heavier share of the burden: they create the relationships and shape them from the beginning. I recently read a nice article by a Harvard Business School professor. He talks about how one should look at this relationship as a long-term endeavor with no immediate gratification. That could be the right way to look at it.

  1. Ellen Crocker #

    After 44 years as a therapist, I have some thoughts: Becoming aware/conscious of what propels us, what presuppositions we have is an important step. But, none of us were raised by perfect parents, nor did we live in a perfect world.
    I believe most parents do their best, and that is all that can be expected. Get real!
    When people came into my office explaining to me why theiy were the way they were (upbringing), I would scratch my chin and ask naively, “Oh, interesting; what are you planning to do about that?”
    So the other part of that as Fritz Perls says, “You write your script, and then you live it.” We all must be responsible for the lives we live.

    How’s that?

    January 16, 2012
    • Expectation has a lot to do with it. Many problem-less parent-child relationships I see are the ones with little mutual expectation. But I’d never say that lowering one’s expectation is the solution.
      I disagree with conservative idea that the ONLY solution to life’s problems is self reliance. We are inseparable from our families and communities. We should have high expectations for people around us, and high expectations for our communities, and society.

      January 16, 2012
  2. I liked this post. I think you’re right about parenting being “doomed” from the start, in a way, particularly if you think of it as a means of reproducing yourself or some aspect of yourself you were unable to achieve. All of us need to look at the life that gave birth to us, if we don’t we will have a difficult time giving birth to ourselves. This second birth isn’t a given, in my opinion it is something mostly people with the luxary of education get to achieve. The Harvard students who want to look back upon their parents and uncover all their parents wrongs are only sticking to yet anothera time-honored elite tradition. The tradition of individuation.

    I think we must be quite privileged to get to a point where we feel safe enough to turn back around and “bite the hand that breeds us”. It’s funny. I did lose my parents as a young girl, and I was also raised blue-collar. One of the values that was instilled in me when I was young was the sanctity of the family, of the parents. My parents did not have big dreams for me or any of their children, they were just good, kind people who taught their kids to work for everything they got. The idea of any of their children later turning around and blame them for what they lacked would have been ludicrous. We all lacked, we lacked together, maturation in that environment came from the compassion we children felt as we grew older and realized the sacrifices our parents made.

    I think that workshop would be much more interesting if if was full not just of extremely privileged young adults, but kids who had much fewer opportunities. The biggest problem I’ve found in having found myself circulating in the class above me is that most of the privileged people have zero idea that their sense of goodness is completely inherited, their sense that their opinions matter was piped into them from a feed spanning back generations.

    January 16, 2012
    • Sure, this is a modern problem for a privileged people. Beating was perfectly okay just 2 generations ago. There was a time when getting fed by parents was enough to be thankful for.

      January 16, 2012
  3. Todd Brown #

    Winston, I enjoy your posts. However, this is a bit nihilistic. The notion that healthy parent-child relationships are uncommon is absurd, in my experience. As is the notion that children are self-fulfillment for parents. As is the notion that a child’s perfect happiness should be a parents goal.

    Of course we are imprinted by our parents, or primary caregivers. Any other outcome is impossible. Children do not possess mature reason, and they learn mostly by mimicry. Far from being a selfish pursuit, parenthood is a profound responsibility. Further, unless your friend has a personality disorder or behavioral disturbance, or suffered abuse, then her desire to “undo” her parent’s influence is likely a perrsonal preference acquired through contact with different values and norms rather than an attempt to heal some deep psychological trauma. Which is fine… but do not pretend children are victims of malevolent brainwashing by the parents. I agree with your first impression: more secular humanist poppycock!

    January 16, 2012
    • I’m glad the phrase “northeast, latte sipping liberal” did not enter your comment. If you say you have witnessed mostly wonderful parent child relationships, and that parents have children for selfless reasons, who am I to question that? Good for you.

      January 16, 2012
      • Todd Brown #

        Well, I did not want to be too over the top.


        January 20, 2012
  4. No relationship is perfect. That is why forgiveness and love are so important. Parenting is just about the hardest thing on the planet, and hopefully, we improve on each generation and do more good things than bad. I think your post is interesting, but your conclusion that a good relationship is rare and that it must be perfect to be valid is a really depressing thought. Too many people whine about the mistakes their parents make, instead of taking responsibility for themselves and their own happiness. What if they instead focus on the good things they learned from their parents? And I think if you focus your whole life on selflessly fulfilling all of your children’s needs, what you end up with is narcissistic children and basket case parents.

    I do see a trend whee it is now trendy to have children. Sometimes it seems people have children just so they can buy cool gear and get them into the most prestigious schools. And in some situations, parents really do mess up their kids because they are abusive. That is always sad to see. As parents, we need to always be trying our best, and your post did inspire me to rethink a few things.

    January 16, 2012
    • Yes, parenthood is definitely the hardest thing on the planet. This is the point of my post: are we expecting too much from parents today, since parents are human beings, too, with all the good and bad? On the other hand, shouldn’t we have high expectations, since the parent-child relationship is so important? I don’t know the answer. Just asking questions.

      January 18, 2012
  5. Kirrily #

    I am surprised by this post as I usually agree with so much of what you write. It seems you are viewing parent-child relationships as too static, where I feel they are ever evolving as our roles change and as both parents and children mature.

    I have recently spent a month caring for my father after his stroke and we have developed a closeness as a result that I would never have thought possible prior to this. I didn’t expect our relationship to change any more but it makes sense that as parents become elderly and the parent-child roles switch that the relationship will too.

    Similarly, my relationship to and understanding of my parents (including my mother who had died many years before) changed when I had children and suddenly realised they were just people doing their best as Chris and I were. Barring the horrific end of the parenting spectrum, that is true of all the parents who ‘messed up’ their kids.

    I am expecting that Chris and I are doing as much wrong as parents as we are doing right. Have we limited our children’s access to education and culture by moving to the country, or are they having an ideal childhood playing outside? Who knows until they grow up and tell us what they think of it all. And that is just the tangibles, without getting into the personality traits and ways of dealing with life that we are both intentionally and unintentionally passing on.

    The irony of parenting is that it is like a love affair in which you know you will be dumped and blamed for all that is wrong (at least for some of the time in the future) but you still go on putting all your love, energy and hope into supporting your children as they grow and develop.

    January 16, 2012
    • I completely agree that like all close relationships, the parent-child relationship ebbs and flows, and changes over time. And we, too, wonder all the time, if we’re making the best decisions for our children. And we question whether we’re doing something for completely selfish reasons, and then justify them by saying to ourselves: oh, it’ll be good for the kids, too.

      January 18, 2012
  6. Very interesting post! I am lucky to have a close-knit family with quirks of course but still I travel as an adult with my Parents which is unique. I agree that many family relationships are screwed up yet sometimes it is not he parents fault. Sometimes he kids are the ones missing a few screws. I think as long as you view the family as the most important hint in your l

    January 17, 2012
    • Opps… I hit done in error! Sorry about that! What I was saying is that family should be the most important part of your life. And raising a family should be in the hopes of raising productive, healthy and happy off spring who will be contributors of society.

      January 17, 2012
      • Sure, children can be screwed up, too.
        But this is where parenthood differs from a marriage. I think parents bare much greater responsibility for the relationship, because it’s a relationship entirely of the parents’ creation. They shape it from an early age.

        January 18, 2012
  7. “I hope we do better than our own parents.” That is a very high bar to jump, Winston. I don`t know your parents, your relationship to them, but you, as a person, are the product of this relationship. If you allow me saying, they have done an incredible job. And you will do a great job raising you`re children. It`s the natural order of things. As @Tod Brown sad mimicry is the way children absorb most of their knowledge about the world, beginning at a very young age.

    I don`t know about good-bad relationships. I think that there are plenty examples for both in the world…

    January 18, 2012
    • Thanks Georgi for your compliment. I hope this post is not read as a commentary on specific parent-child relationships in our family and close friends. I’m not sure if we’re doing the best job that we can. But one thing I think every parent should do, is to think clearly about the decisions you make in relation to your children: are you doing it truly in the best interest of your children, for their happiness present and future, or are you doing it for completely selfish reasons? Or even worse, for vanity and bragging rights? Your motives, not your actions, will come back and haunt you later in life.

      January 18, 2012

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