Friday, April 24, 2009

The Parent Trap

Living your life as a perpetual child is never a good idea.

Being born last in any family is a liberating experience. Not only do your older siblings take all the heat from your parents and have to deal with their unrealistic expectations, you can sit back and observe the family process from a more detached view and understand the family dynamics better.

Also, as youngest, the odds are, your parents will do the honorable thing sooner, rather than later, and take a dirt dive in the churchyard by the time you are 40. Yes, once your parents are safely in the grave you can really start living.

Now, I know what you are going to say, "That is so crass!"  But the reality is, for many people the death of their parents is accompanied by a very giddy feeling of freedom. Even people who have a good decent loving relationship with their parents have expressed to me their feelings of guilt when their parents die. "This shouldn't feel so good," they say, but the feeling is so overwhelming that the guilt doesn't stay around for long.

Simply stated, with your parents out of the way, you can start living your own life, as an adult, and not as a perpetual child. For older siblings, parents may not pass on until you are well into your 60's, meaning that you end up being a child that much longer. Your period of "freedom" may be only a decade or more, before you kick the bucket as well.

Now a very few folks out there DO have a constructive and healthy relationship with their parents. This article is not addressed to them (and yes, the rest of us hate you!). But I rarely see this types of relationships in real life. For those of you who view your Father and Mother as your best friends and co-equals (and are not living in a fool's paradise) more power to you. But for others, the parent relationship is crippling and can often affect their entire life in a very negative way.

Parents, of course, don't set out to smother their children. And yet, many engage in a slow-motion form of infanticide over the life of their child. Parents will say things like "I've always wanted my children to be more successful than me!" but actually want the reverse. Parents will say things like "I want my kids to have all the things I never had!" not realizing that deprivation can build character. Parents may SAY they want what's best for their children, but often by insisting they KNOW what is best, do great harm to children.

Many adults, well into their 30's 40's - even 50's and 60's - struggle with their relationship with their parents.  And they make this relationship the centerpiece of their lives, and remain miserable and unhappy for decades.   They refuse to grow up - and are reduced to a crying, sniveling mess, whenever they visit their parents - which is often.   They cheat themselves out of their own lives, in an attempt to satisfy parents who will never be satisfied.

As a child, the best thing you can do is to grow up, not merely physically, but mentally as well, and stop being a child in the parent/child relationship. What do I mean by this? Well consider the following scenarios:

1. Parents Give the Worst Career Advice on the Planet

Never take career advice from anyone over 30, parents in particular. Parents, often under the rubric of "I want what's best for my child" try to push their children on particular career paths.

A Korean friend of mine, for example, was told by his Father to become an Engineer, like his Dad. It was not open for discussion. Dad is an Engineer, Son shall be so, too. The problem is, he was not happy with this career and as a result lived a very unhappy life and was never very successful. His dream was to open a Korean grocery store. Perhaps not a grandiose dream, but nevertheless his. So rather than living his own life, he now lives the life his parents felt was best for him.

A decade ago, a young man telling his parents he wanted to be a web designer no doubt mystified them. "This Internet thing is a fad, son" Dad would say, "You need to get into something more stable and secure". The worst thing a kid could do is take that advice. And many would, falling into the Parent Trap - assuming their "older and wiser" parents know more and know better.

In some cultures this goes beyond mere career as well, and spills over into arranging or approving marriages and planning other details of an adult child's life. How many families do you know, where one or both parents have "disapproved" of a child's choice of spouse?

A young Indian friend of mine returned to England at age 26 after completing her Master's degree, walking away from permanent residency, a relationship and a job offer, in order to marry a young man her parents arranged her to marry when she was 7. She claimed she had to do this, and spent the rest of her life arguing about the injustice of it all. But was that really the case? Or did she really have choices? You can stand up for yourself and your own life.

My Mother insisted that getting a Liberal Arts Degree was the best career path anyone could take, because that's what she did. My siblings followed this advice and ended up unemployed. They all had to go back and get advanced degrees to pursue real careers as a result. Being the youngest and seeing all this, I decided to do what I wanted, which was to program computers and get an Engineering degree. My Mother would go on drunken tirades as a result, shouting angrily that "who will use all this computer garbage, anyway?" Great career advice, Mom!

But such things are the norm with parents, who feel that because they are a few years older, they know better than you as to what you like and what you'd like to do. The reality is, old people are the worst in forecasting the future. You will have to live in a world of your future, not theirs. Their static ideas of the past will undoubtedly be swept away, just as their generation swept away the preconceived notions of their own parents. Funny thing, too, you'd think they'd remember that. But they don't. They created their own future, and now they wanted it frozen in time and for you to live in it. Don't fall for that trap.

2. I Want My Kids to Be More Successful Than I Was!

Every generation claims they believe this, but don't fall for it. Many parents take a perverse and secret pleasure in having dependent children all their lives. Children with ruined lives give the parents something to bitch about (the Friend with the Perpetual Problem, see also, Emotional Vampires) and they secretly relish the control they still have over their kids who are well into their 30's.

You see, when you have kids, they are like possessions or chattel in legal terms. And to some extent, minor children are property (and still are in many parts of the world). Growing up is difficult for a child, but harder on the parent. Most parents cannot let go of their image of the child as property - as something smaller and dumber than they are. Perhaps the image of the child as an independent adult drives home their own eventual mortality.

To some extent I also think it is because parents want an audience for their lives, to validate their existence and experiences. Movies are full of scenes such as this, where the great patriarch of the family, on his deathbed, is surrounded by admiring children and grandchildren, who all laud "Papa", telling him how great he is and how he made everything possible. The reality is, of course, far different than that. Papa was an abusive drunk who derided his children and took every opportunity to stand in the way of their goals. Oftentimes, parents stand in the way of their children's progress, if not actively inhibiting it, which is an interesting phenomenon. Children, as a result, are inclined to turn away from their parent's lives, not wanting to be an audience to a horror movie.

The worst thing a child can do, in many instances, IS be more successful than their parents. If the parent cannot let go of that superior/inferior relationship, the success of the child appears to them as a threat. Oftentimes, you will see this manifested quite plainly, where a parent will run-down a successful child's career, the jealously plainly evident.

I ran into this with my Mother. As the youngest, I was quite successful as an Engineer, working at GM and United Technologies. Yet she would belittle my accomplishments at every turn as a "mere tradesman".   My oldest brother was pushed to go into law school and my parents even offered to pay his way (he never did. To his credit, he finally discovered his career path lay elsewhere, such as it was). Ironically, I was working my way through Law School at the same time. My Mother would go on and on about how my older brother SHOULD go, but my actual going apparently didn't register on her Richter scale.

Which was probably a good thing. I went to Law School for my own reasons, and as the youngest in the family, my career plans were hardly scrutinized. My elder siblings, on the other hand, were harassed and counseled by my parents, even when my siblings were well into their 40's. Being under the radar has its advantages - you can do what you want.

3. I Want My Kids to Have All the Things I Never Had!

I had a boss like this. He grew up in a poor neighborhood and worked his way out of the ghetto by studying hard at technical high school and getting into a good college. Kids beat him up every day on the way to school. It was a hard life. But it gave him the resolve to do better.

He told me he didn't want his kids to lack for anything, and he kept his word. As a result, his children were like kept wives. They relied on Daddy for money, well into their 30's and even 40's. He bought them cars, paid their rent, found them jobs. They were some of the most boorish and spoiled kids I ever met.

And not surprisingly, they had no careers of their own. He took a perverse pleasure in regaling me with their failures in life, as if it were some badge of honor. As if affording failed children was a luxury item. A Psychologist probably could answer why he did this. All I can do is identify the trend, as I have seen it elsewhere.

It is ironic, but being a spoiled adult child can be the ultimate trap. If your parents are well off and indulge your every need, you cannot develop a life of your own. And since they control the purse strings, you have to sacrifice your independence in order to live this "luxurious" lifestyle.

Trust fund kids know all too well what I am talking about. Grandpa set up a trust for them, but made it damn near impossible for them to access the funds in the trust. It is a left-handed gift if there ever was one. From the grave, Grandpa says, "I want you to have this staggering sum of money, but, since I think you're a total idiot, I'm going to tie it up legally so you can't have any real access to it." Gee, thanks gramps, for that vote of confidence.

Inherited wealth can thus be crippling, as the recipient may not develop the Independence and self-reliance that the donor had. I knew a number of trust fund kids when I was growing up, and for the most part (with one exception), they ended up listless and lazy, and severe emotional and substance-abuse problems. Paris Hilton is not some anomaly, but the norm.

My one exception friend went out of her way to get her own job, career, and live independently of her parents. It was not easier, but I think she is happier than her siblings as a result. But it takes a strong personality to free yourself of the parent trap, and when the trap is baited with dollar bills, even more so.

4. I'll Be Home for Christmas!

One interesting aspect of this Parent Trap is the inability of some children to shed the child role, well into their 30's and 40's - if ever. I ran into a friend of mine a few years back, and asked them how she was. "Oh, well, you know, it's almost Christmas" she said, letting out a sigh.

"Yea, I know, holidays can be depressing for a lot of people," I replied, trying to be supportive.

"Oh no, it's not that," she replied, "It's just that I have to go home to my parents house for Christmas, and I know my Mother will get drunk and call me a failure and run me down, and I hate all that."

"Well," I replied, "Don't go, then".

She gave me a blank stare as if I had just suggestion treason or told her the Earth was flat. Now bear in mind this woman was 35 years old, a successful lawyer and married. But she felt that she was obligated, no required to return home every holiday, like a small child, and spend Christmas with her abusive family.

This seems to be a recent trend with our generation, too. My parents, at that age, had their own family, and I do not recall that we spent more than one or two Christmases or other holidays with grandparents. When you grow up, you form your own family, and that becomes your primary relationship, not the parent/child relationship of your upbringing.

"Well," she said, clearly thinking, "Where would we go, then? My Husband's parents are psychotic, too!" And she was right on that point. Merely going to the in-laws was no solution, only jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

"Go to Aruba," I said, "Or some other romantic getaway, just you and your husband. Drink cocktails with little umbrellas on the beach and have great sex in some charming little bungalow hotel. It would be a lot more fun that the drunken abuse at your Parent's house, trust me." I explained to her that she was an adult now and had her own life to live, not her Parent's life and expectations.

I could see a little light bulb go on in her head. They went to the Caribbean that year and had a good time. She broke the cycle of dependency and suddenly Christmas was a time of year she looked forward to.

Of course, her Parents were none too pleased. She was expected to return home and be an audience for their more important lives! Her Mother was the classic audience parent. Successful in her own right, she trivialized the accomplishments of her children and expected them to return home to pay homage to her greatness. Suddenly, there was a new world order.

When you are an infant, you rely on your parents to change your diapers and feed you. And as a child and young adult, you rely on them for all of your physical needs. But as you become an adult, a funny thing happens. You no longer need your parents (or shouldn't, unless you have devolved into a parasite) but your parents now need YOU more than ever.

Being elderly is often not much fun. It can be lonely. And if the major accomplishment of your life was raising a family, and you are estranged from your kids, then you have to wonder what it was all about, anyway. Parents desperately need their kids as they get older - for moral and emotional support, and also for validation of their lives.

In short, they need YOU more than YOU need THEM. The power balance shifts at that point, which may be one reason so many parents try to keep the relationship balance of power the other way, not realizing that their very actions are driving their kids AWAY from them.

And that is exactly what happened to my friend. Once she established the rules and set the boundaries, the parents fell into line. No longer was she some slave, "obligated" to return home periodically and endure abuse. If she was to visit, it was to be as a peer, not as a child, and she was entitled to be treated with a modicum of respect.

And, not surprisingly, her parents got the message. Her relationship with her mother is better than ever, as it no longer is couched in terms of parent/child as a master/slave type of thing. She never had the Norman Rockwell kind of family Christmas that so many people talk about (but few have) but she is closer to that sort of thing nowadays.

I recently visited someone well into their 60's who was crying in their soup about having to "go home for Christmas" to visit her nearly 90-year-old Mother, who was abusive and manipulative.   For 60 years, this lady spent every Christmas with her parents - paying the highest possible airfares and spending countless hours stranded in snowed-in airports.  I suggested to her that maybe she should visit another time, perhaps.  Or perhaps don't even go - if the visits were so unpleasant and stressful.   Again, I was given that look like, "What freaking planet are you from?  Everyone HAS to go to their parents house for Christmas!"

Well, not really.  Did her parents go to their parents house every Christmas?  No, of course not.  For some reason, our generation seems to be the only one brainwashed in this manner.  

If visiting your parents seems like a chore, a burden, or turns out to be an ugly shouting match every time you visit, the best solution is to not visit. You are not required by law to spend time with unpleasant people. You'd be surprised how many people fail to grasp this. My friend, when I first broached the idea to her, said "Well, you HAVE to go to your parent's house for Christmas!" as if it were some sort of law.

Live your own life. Enjoy yourself. Stop being a punching bag. Don't wait for your parents to die before you can enjoy yourself and live. Pulling back from your parent/child relationship can actually result in a better relationship on a peer-to-peer basis. And if they don't come around, well why bother torturing yourself?

5. You Never Come to Visit!

I live on a retirement island, where the average age is 74. Like many retirement communities, elderly people build or buy houses with multiple guest rooms for their kids and "the grandchildren", convinced that they will come visit them often. And some do, of course. Those with healthy relationships with their children do visit and get along. But they seem to be few and far between.

(The grands! The grands! for some reason, grandparents obsess about grandchildren, perhaps looking at them as a second bite at the apple, or a chance to "do over" their first horrible attempt at parenting. In many instances I've seen, grandparents try to insert themselves into the rearing of the grandchildren, creating more friction between themselves and their children by usurping the parent's role.)

Many are estranged from their children or see then very little. Why is this? As I noted above, the problem largely exists because the parents can't let go of their parent role and treat their adult children as co-equals. As an adult, you would not want to go back to high school and have to obey all the silly rules they inflict on teenagers, would you? So why would any adult want to do the same with their parents?

Once the adult child returns to the family home to visit and sleep overnight in the guest room, they are reduced again to the level of child. Usually, after a few days of such visitations, friction starts, and the visit goes sour. Not surprisingly, the adult child doesn't want to return again anytime soon.

So, what Can you Do?

Well, it is not easy, particularly for young people. For my young Korean friend, as for many others, the college years are difficult, as you are still dependent on your parents for support, and cannot afford to go against their wishes.

However, once you turn 21 and graduate from college, you are on your own and can call your own shots. Surprisingly, few do, instead taking more and more bad advice from their parents, or believing they "had to" do as their parents said. And like the friend with perpetual problem such folks will regale you with what a lousy deal they got in life, never realizing they do indeed have choices.

Being independent and following your own course is never easy. But as I have noted before, staying in the middle of the herd only insures that the grass is matted down and pooped upon. The eating is better at the edge of the herd - but that's also where the wolves are. Rewards go to the risk-takers, not the risk-averse.

There are specific things you CAN do, to take back control of your own life and forge a better relationship with your parents:

1. Taking control of your own finances. Setting money aside and building your own estate and nest egg are important. If you are relying on your parents for money well into your 30'sand 40's, then something is wrong. Oftentimes, parents try to get around your financial planning by offering to pay for occasional big-ticket items, such as furniture, cars, or your children's college educations.

For the latter, consider one of those pre-paid tuition programs that are available in many States. Not only would you get a tax deduction out of the deal, but as it is "pre-paid", your parents no longer have the sword of Damacles hanging over your head. You see, that is the whole point of the financially helpful parent - they dangle out the bait of money, but then later use that as leverage to manipulate your behavior.

Frankly, no matter how lucrative the cash offer, many folks would prefer their independence. And the "I'll pay for your children's college" gambit is particularly odious, as for one to refuse such an offer to help the children would appear to be unseemly. But if you think back, did your grandparents pay for your college? Chances are, the answer is "No." But for some reason, in my generation, it seems to be the norm that many parents rely upon their own parents to pay for their children's college. No wonder this generation has never grown up.

2. Control the Parental Visit: The parental visit is one area where you can reduce a lot of stress in your life. If your family is dysfunctional, keep visits short. And for God's sake, don't stay in the house. Once trapped in your teenage bedroom or guestroom, you are flung back into the role of child again - a role you will chafe at as an adult. I have found it much better to stay at a local hotel and then visit for short periods of time. Old folks get tired and cranky anyway, so keeping the visits short makes it better for everyone concerned. And if Mom or Dad start going off on your career choice or spousal choice, it's "Oh, look at the time, I have to go freshen up at the hotel, BYE!" ALWAYS have your own car or vehicle at any family outing as an "escape pod". NEVER ride in the back seat of your parent's car - you are trapped if they decide to "go off" at a remote location.

And don't be afraid to turn down such visits. If a parent has misbehaved during a recent visit, be up front with them and say that there will be no more visits unless they agree to a minimum standard of behavior. Yes, they are like small children at this point - the relationship has inverted. But you'd be suprised. Many a lonely parent will "clean up" their act if threatened with a cutoff.

But for many folks, the best parental visit can be the 10 minutes you spend once a year putting flowers on a grave. Sad, but true. But a lot less hassle.

3. Don't be Afraid to Walk Away: While you may be able to take charge of your life and live it on your own terms, chances are, your siblings may not be so inclined. There are people in this world with such low self-esteem and low ambitions, that they would gladly trade their independence for the occasional help with a car payment or whatever.

For example, a friend of mine was able to reorganize his relationship with his parents along the lines set out above. He told them in no uncertain terms that he would no longer tolerate the abuse he was subjected to. And, not surprisingly, being lonely and isolated, they agreed. The relationship, redefined as a peer-to-peer relationship, became more pleasant and even enjoyable.

But, after his Mother died, his Father remarried a widow with three dependent children. By dependent, I don't mean in the tax sense, but in the sense of failed adult children who barely scrape by, constantly "borrowing" money from their Mother. Suddenly the Father found himself with a willing audience of step-children, who, in return for financial assistance (and a potential inheritance) were willing to put up with his nonsense. It is surprising, how, for a very little bit of money, you can control people.

In that situation, there was nothing to do but walk away. The Father's old abusive habits came to the forefront again, as he now saw himself as "in charge" of other people's lives - doling out money, advice, and control. He had a new audience for his life.

If your relationship with your parents causes you no end of grief, then don't be afraid to walk away from it, once you are an adult. Many people do. Unfortunately, the popular culture (Movies and Television) treat such things as an anomaly or some horrible situation that needs to be "remedied" by a Hallmark ending.

This latter phenomenon is very disturbing and damaging. Many well-meaning folks will say platitudes like, "Well, you should get along with your parents, after all, they raised you!" To a child who has spent years struggling with physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, such statements are like daggers in the heart. Their own friends are telling them that it is their fault, not the parent's. Before you offer such "helpful" advice to a friend or stranger, make sure you know the whole "back story". If your friend is struggling to recover from an abusive childhood, you should be supportive of them, and not castigate them for failing to reconcile with an abuser.

What Can a Parent Do?

If you are a parent, and are estranged from your children, or are finding their visits fewer and far between, or finding each visit devolves into a shouting match, what can you do? Well, assuming you really want to change things (and not just bitch about them, which so many elderly people prefer to do), I have the following suggestions:

1. Recognize That You Represent the Past: Every generation has its own ideas, goals, styles, music, and tastes. Recognizing that is a first start. No doubt when you were a teen, your parents hated your dress, your hair, your friends, your music, and your choice of spouse. No doubt they expressed skepticism of your career plans as well. Parents today decry rap music, tattoos, piercings. Parents of a generation ago decried rock and roll, long hair, the hippies. And so on and so on. My Grandmother took a lot of flack from her parents for bobbing her hair, wearing "flapper" dresses, going to speakeasies and (gasp!) dancing the Charleston.

How the world will be in 50 years is anyone's guess. I will be dead, and you will be likely, too. Decrying all change as "bad" because it is something you don't understand or are uncomfortable with is not constructive, and moreover is a waste of your personal energy. The kids will do OK in their world. And it is their world now, not yours. Yes, I would not want to be a kid today and live a more crowded world of (what appears to be) reduced expectations. But you know, I would not want to live in my parent's world, either (I'll take a pass on Polio, thanks). While we may think the future is cloudy and uncertain, the kids today think otherwise. Let them live in their world and let ours die with us.

2. Stop Trying to Micromanage Your Adult Children: Letting go of CONTROL over your children is probably a good first step. You can't force your children to be small clones of yourself, and you shouldn't try. They are separate living beings and have to make their own decisions - and own mistakes. Trying to enforce your antiquated notions about the world on them is likely to backfire in a big way.
Children, even adult children, do give a lot of weight to their parent's opinions (which is often their biggest problem). Realize that you have this power, use it wisely and sparingly. Trying to micromanage your children's lives will surely backfire in a big way. They will make their own way in the world, with or without your help - and in most cases go further without. Sometimes just getting out of the way and being supportive are the best things you can do. 

3. Stop using Money to Control your Kids: Stop using the promise of small (or large) sums of money or gifts to influence them or elicit visits. Gifts with strings attached are no gifts at all.

4. Never try to Pick Your Child's Spouse: As my friend's Sister's example illustrates, this never works. She married a man who, while a decent fellow, was an ill-suited match. My friend's Father opposed the marriage. Guess what? They got married anyway. His sister stayed married to her husband to spite her Father. How weird. You have to let childern make mistakes - even big mistakes.

5. Stop Trying to Raise Your Grandkids: This seems to be a problem for my generation in particular. The "Helpful Grandma" (See, Emotional Vampires) inserts herself between the parent and child, offering advice and money to the children. The children get mixed signals, as two sets of parents (parents and grandparents) are often saying opposite things. Since Grandma doesn't have to deal with the day-to-day issues of child rearing, and since grandma doles out cash and gifts like an ATM, guess who the kids like better? Your generosity and kindness serves only to underscore the "meanness" of their parents, who are charged with enforcing rules.

The other day, we were camping in our RV.  Most RV'ers are older folks, who are retired.  We met a couple who were in their late 60's, and they had a young child - their grandchild with them.   The lady gleefully reported what a "rotten mother" her daughter was - with the daughter's daughter standing right there.   It was, to say the least, appalling.   Helpful Grandma doesn't win any parenting awards, either.

Let your kids raise their kids, even if you think they are making horrible mistakes. Inserting yourself into the process and spoiling your grand-kids only makes things worse.

* * *

There probably is no way out of the Parent Trap. A very privileged few have a decent relationship with their parents, based on mutual respect. However, most people I meet have quite the opposite, with relationships ranging from mere antagonism to emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse. Many spend years struggling to break free of their childhoods.

Often, too late, they discover that while they were struggling with the parent/child relationship, their entire lives passed by, and they missed out on living their own lives as a result.

And in far too many cases, I've seen well-meaning people try into interject themselves into such situations, with blandishments such as "Well, you'll always have your family!" and the like. Such statements, to the victim of child abuse, are sharp wounds to the soul. Before you decide it is your job in life to reunite an "estranged" child with an abusive family member, be sure you understand the whole back story.

Updated December 13, 2013.