Picture this: You’re rushing to get your kids ready for school and catch yourself huffing in annoyance as your mother did when you were growing up. You may feel disconcerted to find yourself imitating your parents’ behavior with your children, but you’re not alone. Research shows strong ties between people’s parenting and the parenting they received from their parents, journalist Faith Hill notes in this thoughtful article in The Atlantic. Social learning plays a role, but other factors lead you to repeat parenting patterns – for better or for worse. Breaking this cycle is possible, but it’s a difficult, highly personal process.
- Parents often mimic their parents’ parenting – for better or for worse.
- Your parenting style stems from “social learning,” but socioeconomic factors, genetics and how you think about your childhood also play pivotal roles.
- You may find it difficult to change your negative parenting habits.
Parents often mimic their parents’ parenting – for better or for worse.
Most parents, at some point, catch themselves mirroring their own parents’ behaviors with their children. They may mimic specific mannerisms, phrases or physical tics their parents displayed – for example, a glare to signal displeasure with a child’s whining. Or they might subconsciously adopt entire attitudes passed down from their parents. For example, if your parents reacted harshly when you asked for a toy, you might internalize the notion that children who request non-necessities from adults are acting like brats. This, in turn, could lead you to snap at your kids when they beg for treats.
“Maybe you subconsciously follow your own parents’ lead; maybe, in swerving away from their mistakes, you stumble into new ones. Regardless, their legacy can seem like a prophecy.”
Even if you haven’t noticed yourself behaving like your parents, you probably do, sometimes. Studies examining multiple generations of families show that, by and large, people’s parents shape their offsprings’ parenting style. This applies to admirable qualities, such as sound communication skills, as well as less nurturing ones – including abusive tendencies.
Even when you are aware of your parents’ shortcomings and work consciously to avoid replicating them, you may have difficulty living up to your own ideals.
Your parenting style stems from “social learning,” but socioeconomic factors, genetics and how you think about your childhood also play pivotal roles.
Social learning is one reason you may, often inadvertently, imitate your parents. As a child, you learn to operate in the world by watching and copying those around you. If you realize, as an adult, that you do not wish to duplicate those learned behaviors, you may deviate from those patterns most of the time. However, when people are under stress, they often revert to the prevailing behavior patterns of their childhood.
“Children don’t enter the world as a blank slate. The generations that came before shape them from the start.”
Other inherited factors shape your parenting style. If, for example, you focus on how one or both of your parents mistreated you or if you were taught to suppress negative emotions, you maybe be less able less to spot, or accept, your children’s strong emotions. Genetic predispositions – toward ADHD or depression, for example – your family’s socioeconomic status, and intergenerational problems with mental health, drugs or alcohol also shape your parenting.
You may find it difficult to change your negative parenting habits
Knowing that you don’t want to repeat your parents’ mistakes does not mean you automatically understand how you should behave. In decades past, people interacted with a larger number of parenting models outside of their immediate nuclear family than children interact with today. Today, you must proactively seek out alternate role models – a teacher or coach, for example. Getting on the same page as your co-parent about parenting choices will help you support one another in avoiding certain unwanted behaviors.
“Knowing what not to do isn’t the same as knowing what to do.”
At crucial parenting moments, consider your childhood and imagine – in detail – how your parents could have acted better or differently. Be wary of letting your childhood experiences play too great a role in your parenting. Over-correcting is easy; for instance, someone with a strict upbringing might be unhealthily lax with their kids. Decisions made from a place of fear or guilt seldom yield the best outcome. Pursue a balanced approach rooted in empathy. Recognize that every parent is flawed. Don’t focus on the parts of your childhood you don’t want to replicate with your kids; instead, give equal weight – and put effort into – to positive attributes and behavior you know you do want to pass along to them.
About the Author
Faith Hill is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.