Out of the Mouths

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy of 14 my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”  There are many teen-agers who would agree with the first part of that statement and many more parents who would appreciate the underlying sentiment of the entire quote.

For those parents who have experienced hearing from their children that they don’t know anything, it may be a comfort to learn that young people do come to appreciate parental wisdom – sometimes even sooner than later.  Even without the familiar parental wish that they have children of their own who will make similar accusations.

I had a recent conversation with a young adult who unexpectedly began to praise his parents for their child-rearing approach during what he now sees as having been difficult behavior on his part.  He knows he didn’t think so at the time because it was tough for him then.  His parents were supportive and got him whatever help he needed but at the same time they didn’t change their expectations for his behavior.  At a certain point he either had to adjust his behavior or face consequences that were not appealing.

What he learned eventually was that the world was not going to change for him.  If he wanted to be accepted, he was the one who had to make changes.  From further conversation it seemed that entry into the work world had reinforced that message and continued the learning experience.

It was interesting that this conversation came about in the context of a political discussion in which current beliefs and thinking were connected in his mind to his own upbringing.  Apparently, the lesson from his childhood, reinforced by those of his first work experience, began to seem applicable to interactions in the larger world.  The saying is, “out of the mouths of babes,” but apparently when those babes grow up, some lessons seem to have remained.

The self-reflections of this young person are noteworthy because the issue of parental expectations is central to parents’ concerns.  Parents are known to question how to respond to unacceptable behavior, beginning with the toddler years and continuing well into adolescence.  A question about the role of consequences always arises, particularly the feeling that there have to be consequences for misbehavior in order for children to learn.

The conflict for parents is between the wish to be supportive and the felt need for consequences, which usually implies some setting of limits.  The problem is that enforcing consequences is often difficult for parents and often leads to angry behavior on the part of a child, which parents would prefer not to have to deal with.  A parent may have to tolerate being called “mean”, or “bad” when enforcing limits in response to unacceptable behavior.

Another source of the conflict for parents is the wish to be supportive of the evolving development of autonomy in their children as a factor in determining how much leeway to allow in parental expectations.

The way parents feel about their own upbringing as children can have great bearing on their current parental behavior.  The post Second World War baby boom generation became known as the Spock generation, with parents thought to be too permissive.  Their children are the parents of the current generation of children some of whom are already parents themselves.

For better or worse, the realities of life – such as the pandemic – may have an even greater impact on child-rearing than how you, yourself, were raised.