The Grip of Childhood by Cecile David-Weill, author, Parents Under the Influence (Book Excerpt)

Like it or not, we have no more control over our role as par­ents than we do over whom we “choose” to fall in love with. Just as in some measure we fall for partners based on our childhood rather than on our conscious desires as adults, we instinctively model our parenting style on that of our par­ents, instead of following our own “updated” and conscious ideas on the matter. While this explains why our parenting style is often neither wise nor rational, it does no good for us to blame ourselves. Our difficulties as parents, similar to our poor choices in our love lives, are not the result of bad luck, character flaws, or poor judgment. Rather, these difficulties stem from an ineluctable tendency to replay our own child­hood. We are indeed “under the influence” of our childhood and of the ways our parents treated us.

It is this very predisposition that we mistakenly call our “instincts,” which in reality are nothing more than a set of unconscious automatic reflexes inherited from our past—our first, knee-jerk reactions regarding how to man­age certain situations. In fact, our most questionable in­voluntary conduct does not correspond to a lack of what we call instinct, but rather to an astonishingly high degree of it; it is what makes us pick the unfaithful spouse out of thousands of possible partners, or adopt our parents’ worst behavior and apply it to our own children. It may be pain­ful, but we are better off facing the fact that we can’t trust our “instincts.”

What I called “trusting my gut” simply meant repro­ducing my parents’ behavior. That’s what everybody tells you to do, so that’s what I did. I trusted my own first re­actions, believing they must be correct, and also because it felt good—it felt like it was what I was supposed to do. So why did I feel just as strongly in agreement with myself when I followed these impulses as I have felt in doubt when I tried to analyze and judge my own parenting skills? The answer is simple. I was drawing the wrong conclusion from a valuable insight: my “instincts” only seemed relevant to me because they led me to reproduce my parents’ behavior, which had been embedded in my mind from an early age.

If this sounds familiar to you, then you know how easy it is to equate our familiarity with and reactions to these be­haviors with their being “right.” The only reason we don’t question our behavior or even try to rely on our judgment is because we are convinced we aren’t able to, when in reality we lack the necessary benchmarks to imagine and adopt new parenting behavior.

The good news, however, is that it is possible to become the parents we want to be and distance ourselves from our childhood baggage. That’s the whole purpose of this book. It is addressed to all of us who are filled with such a hope and ambition, who have already sensed our tendency to reproduce our parents’ behavior, and who fear more than anything that we may inflict the same pain upon our chil­dren. Yet we have to understand that instead of dismissing this repetition mechanism—as we tend to do because we do not know how to prevent it, or because we believe that merely knowing there is such a mechanism means we are somehow free of it—we instead must constantly keep it in mind in order to fight it, and eventually overcome it.

So how do we detect this so-called mechanism that pushes us to reproduce our parents’ behavior? First of all, we need to realize that, far from being exceptional, it’s the source of most of our reactions toward our children—so much so that we have to be on the lookout at all times and in all circumstances. This mechanism functions by provoking reactions in us that at first glance appear fair, indispensable, and irrefutable, whereas a closer, rational examination would reveal these same reactions to be su­perfluous, debatable, or even invalid.

Take my friend Annie, who insisted that her fifteen­ year-old daughter drink a glass of milk every day after school, citing the importance of calcium for proper growth. Annie would keep nagging until her daughter gave in, when in reality what she wanted was to discuss much more serious issues, including her suspicion that her teenage daughter was doing drugs. Yet Annie was convinced she was behaving reasonably and doing her parental duty by attending to her daughter’s nutrition. Eventually Annie began to evaluate her approach in light of her real values and priorities, and she finally realized that she really didn’t care that much about her daughter’s consumption of dairy products. What’s more, she understood that she was wast­ing her authority on a trivial matter rather than reserving it for the real issue she should have been dealing with. Annie realized that she was only copying the behavior of her par­ents who had done the same with her.

This predisposition to do the same as our parents did often shows up as a fixation on some seemingly trivial mat­ter such as obsessing over when children should go to bed, how they should tidy up their room, or what they should be eating. Take the example of parents who put their chil­dren to bed at 8 p.m. sharp and who make this bedtime into an ironclad rule. It’s likely these parents have never re­flected on what they think is a totally reasonable, healthy, character-building rule. It’s not even that they fail to ques­tion what hidden motive might lie behind it—there is zero awareness that there might be any hidden motive behind it. But it would only take a moment’s mindfulness to release the hold of their own upbringing on their current parent­ing: all they would have to do is ask why they are making such a big deal over a relatively minor point in their chil­dren’s upbringing, why they are so incapable of flexibility (unable, for instance, to adjust the bedtime to particular circumstances or to the number of hours of sleep their chil­dren really need), to realize that this has nothing to do with what’s best for their children, but instead everything to do with the time at which their own parents sent them to bed when they themselves were children.

It is the same predisposition to repeat unthinkingly that which is familiar (and which we therefore consider “good” or reasonable) that can determine our strengths and weaknesses as parents.

The story of my old friend Yves is a prime example. He had benefited from his well-off father’s largesse all his life, so much so that he never had to struggle to make a liv­ing. Even though Yves enjoyed the undeniable advantages of his situation, he couldn’t help but resent his financial dependency in some measure, and the effects this depen­dency had upon his growth and evolution as an indepen­dent adult. Upon finding himself in a situation identical to his father’s when Yves’s own son became unemployed, my friend could not keep from helping out financially, knowing full well that he risked depriving his son of the chance to develop the drive necessary to land a job and feel the pride that would come with such an achievement. Yves was com­pelled to act the way he did even though he knew better.

And it is this same predisposition to repeat our own upbringing that is at the heart of what irritates us or makes us angry with our children’s behavior and can even lead us to resort to physical or verbal violence.


From Parents Under the Influence by Cecile David-Weill, published by Other Press.  In Parents Under the Influence, Cécile David-Weill draws on her own parenting blunders and successes as well as concrete examples, case studies, and works of fiction to guide readers, helping them heal from the past and become effective, nurturing parents.


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