Parents do the best they can to raise you with the tools they have. Many parents would be shocked to know that their children were little sponges, soaking up every word and action and interpreting it in their own way. Since each brain and view of the surrounding world is so different, it is no wonder therapists have a constant flow of clients.
Although many thoughts, fears, reactions, and actions get imprinted upon children at an early age, it is never too late to recognize where these things come from and to decide whether or not you wish to continue to hold onto them. Here are five things, out of potentially many more, that your parents inadvertently taught you.
1. How to swear. Fathers are especially good at “teaching” this one. Ever been around your dad in his workshop when he hit his thumb with a hammer? Or how about when he came home from work and tripped over the cat? What about your mom’s reaction when the dog pooped on the floor? Or what your mother said when your father threw the baby up in the air and played catch? There are many every day situations that can cause a parent to inadvertently let loose a blue streak! How do you react to surprise, pain, fear, or fatigue? What swear words are your children learning?
2. The white lie. Ever overhear one of your parents calling in sick to work? “Cough, cough, cough, I seem to have caught a bug from one of the kids. Can’t make it in today.” You look around the house to see which one of your siblings is sick. Then you wonder if it could be you who is sick! But when your parent comes into the room, he/she is perfectly healthy sounding. How confusing is that? In later years, you make a note to tell your therapist about it! What are some other white lies you overheard, and how does that affect your behavior today? Are you a master at the “mental health day” phone call to work?
3. Fear of spiders, mice, lightning, and other events. Parents tend to have different parenting styles here. Your father may have run around the house after a mouse with a shotgun declaring, “I’ve got it!” and your mother may have picked the mouse up by its tail and thrown it out. However, do you remember the reaction to a spider in the bathtub? Which parent screamed and ran away? And how was the offending critter taken care of? Was it squashed into a piece of toilet paper and flushed down the toilet, or trapped in a cup and let go free outside? Now look at your reaction to these critters and events. Where did it come from? Is it a carbon copy of one of your parent’s reactions or is it the exact opposite?
4. How to mess up a house. Are you a piles person, compulsively orderly, or somewhere in between? Chances are that you are a reaction to, or an embodiment of, the way your parents lived. We all know the basics of cleaning a house, but our houses reflect not as much our ability to clean the house but our ability to mess it up! The best way to analyze your style is to look at how your parents live once the children have flown the nest.
5. How to procrastinate. It’s 9 p.m. on a school night, and your mother is putting you to bed. You mention that you haven’t finished your big craft project for the Science Fair, and it’s due tomorrow. Your mother lectures you on leaving something so late and then runs around the house gathering materials for your science project. The two of you sit for the next two hours at the kitchen table modeling a papier- mâché volcano, complete with a baking soda eruption. You proudly carry it to school the next day and get an A on your science project. When do parents enable self-learning and stick-to-it behavior, or when do they, from fatigue, and their own need to have some quiet time and get to bed at a decent hour, inadvertently encourage procrastination? Any attention can be good attention, even if children are being scolded by their parents.
There are many ways parents, and you, yourself, as a parent, model less than desirable behavior. When you internalize this behavior, you can model it yourself or model the exact opposite behavior - or even model a behavior that stems from your own unique interpretation of that behavior. Ever wonder how two siblings who grew up in the same household can have two entirely different interpretations of what went on in that household?
Everyone sees the world differently, and everyone chooses how to react to that world. Even years after the original incident that formed our behavior has taken place, you can still chose to react differently. What behaviors do you have that you can trace back to your parents? How did you chose those behaviors, and do you still chose to keep them?
Beth H. Macy, M.Ed. Psychology, LMHC, is the author of “Many Years Many Worlds.” For more information visit www.manyyearsmanyworlds.com.