The Parenting Prophecy

The way someone was raised often shows up in the way they raise their own kids—for better or worse.

A jumbled set of photos of parents and kids
Illustration by Katie Martin. Source: Getty
A jumbled set of photos of parents and kids

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Something strange might happen at some point after you have kids. It could hit you during the rush before the school day or the climb into the car for soccer practice or the exhaustion of bedtime. You might catch a vivid glimpse of your own parents’ behavior—some specific mannerism plucked from your childhood memories and dropped right into the present. But the one who’s performing it is you.

I spoke with 17 people who have experienced this, in ways big or small, positive or negative or neutral. Some surprised themselves by subconsciously mimicking certain phrases their own parents used to use. Others told me they found themselves enacting the same physical tics as their parents: a certain stern look to communicate irritation, a way of breathing heavily when stressed. But not every example I heard was minor and specific. Many people I interviewed found themselves adopting whole attitudes—strict, or critical, or hyper-involved—that they felt were undeniably passed down from their mother or father.

Some were genuinely happy to take after them. But most felt at least a little uneasy at the realization: Even people who had relatively happy childhoods, after all, can recall some parental shortcomings. Of course they don’t want to replicate them.

As it turns out, though, navigating the minefield of parenting without hurting your children is not always easy. 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. But are a parent’s habits inevitably passed down?

Research shows that sometimes the past really does play on repeat. In longitudinal studies following families over generations, researchers have found a significant association between a person’s parenting and the parenting they received as a child. What psychologists call the “intergenerational transmission of parenting” applies to good and bad patterns alike: Those who benefited from positive caregiving qualities—acceptance, warmth, open communication—are more likely to display the same traits themselves. Understandably, though, researchers have tended to focus on how we pass down the not-so-good qualities—in the worst cases, abuse or neglect—and, by extension, how we might stop the cycle.

One explanation for parenting like your parents, referred to as social learning, is fairly straightforward: We learn from observing and imitating the people around us, sometimes without even realizing what we’re doing. Especially in chaotic moments—when we’re tired, angry, or scared—we can revert to those ingrained behaviors. I heard this frustration again and again from the people I spoke with. Martha Nieset, the founder of a travel company for moms, told me that she tries not to be overly imperious—if her son resists doing the dishes, for example, she’d like to say something like “Hey, I hear you’re feeling like that’s not something you want to do right now. Here’s why I think it’s important.” Or maybe she’d even listen to why he’d rather do them later, and work out a compromise. And yet, her autopilot response—especially when stressed—sounds different: “We’re gonna do it this way.”

A parenting cycle can be perpetuated in other ways, too. Studies have found that parents who are preoccupied with mistreatment during their own childhood might be so distracted that they overlook their own children’s subtle signs of distress. Parents who ignore or downplay their childhood pain out of an aversion to negative emotions might tune out those same signals from their own kids. Jay Belsky, a human-development professor emeritus at UC Davis, told me yet another possibility: Perhaps parents who can’t regulate their own emotions well are less likely to reward their children for doing so, and in turn, those kids are less likely to develop that ability.

Parenting habits can be transmitted indirectly as well. Plenty of factors that can affect one’s parenting—socioeconomic status, mental-health and substance-use issues—are frequently shared between generations. Some of them, such as variations in self-control, levels of irritability, ADHD, and depression, can even be partially influenced by genetics. Children don’t enter the world as a blank slate. The generations that came before shape them from the start.

Nevertheless, your childhood need not determine your parenthood. So why is it that some parents break the cycle, and others—who care deeply for their children, who want more than anything to do right by them—struggle to do the same?

One reason is that knowing what not to do isn’t the same as knowing what to do. Elisabeth Stitt, a parenting coach and the author of Parenting as a Second Language, told me that people are especially likely to default to their parents’ behaviors—including negative ones—if they don’t have any other models to look to. In America, nuclear-family units are far more isolated than in the past; many of us grow up without seeing much child-rearing beyond what we’re subjected to ourselves. And if you never get caregiving practice before you’re a parent yourself, Stitt said, that probably doesn’t help. Though teenagers today might have some informal experience watching littler kids, many parents are depending more on older babysitters than they used to, or on adults leading structured activities for their kids.

Parenting advice can be helpful, Stitt told me, but it’s not a substitute for direct observation. Many of her clients are well read in child-rearing literature, and they know what to say to kids—but not what body language or tone to use. What can really help people depart from their parent’s example, then, is finding someone else in real life to mimic—a role model, or at least someone whose particular strengths offset their parents’ weaknesses.

Several parents I spoke with described just this. When Nieset talked about wanting to foster two-sided discussions with her son, rather than ordering him around, she mentioned: “That was something I picked up at my son’s preschool.” When his teachers took the kids out for recess, she noticed, they wouldn’t just tell students to grab their coats; they’d ask, “What do you need to get ready?” Other parents I interviewed found models in their grandparents, their friends, their kids’ sport coaches. And researchers told me that supportive spouses or partners can powerfully protect against parenting transmission. If a co-parent doesn’t like how you’re behaving with the kid you’re both raising, they’re naturally motivated to give you feedback.

Even with the best influences in the world, you might subconsciously repeat your parents’ blunders if you haven’t come to terms with them yourself. Becky Kennedy, the clinical psychologist and parenting influencer also known as “Dr. Becky,” believes that much of the time, people’s reactions to their kids’ behavior are actually reactions to their own childhood memories. Perhaps as a child, she told me, you wanted a toy—and you were met with distance or anger. You learned: Adults don’t like when I ask for things. But now you’re all grown up and your kid is crying, begging for ice cream; if you find yourself responding with disproportionate harshness, maybe it’s because you internalized the idea that asking for things is shameful. Those associations—ones we learn so early on that we may not even realize we still hold them—are hard to let go of.

Kennedy preaches what she calls “reparenting”: reflecting on your childhood experiences and imagining, in detail, what your parents could have done differently. If you can envision a gentler reaction from them in the toy store, perhaps you won’t be so triggered in the ice-cream shop. And eventually, you might be the parent you wish you had.

Letting your childhood guide your parenting, though, can sometimes lead people to overcorrect. Researchers often place parenting styles in a matrix with two axes: warmth and expectations. According to Stitt, many people with “authoritarian” parents (high expectations, low warmth) lean too far into “permissive” parenting (loving, but with too few limits) and vice versa. Several parents brought up that type of conundrum. One mother, who’d had a hyper-strict upbringing, told me that when she leans into relaxed parenting, she notices her kids starting to act out. Another said she used to avoid conflict at all costs because her parents had fought a lot, but then she found herself turning into a doormat.

Marinus van IJzendoorn, a psychologist who teaches at University College London and Australia’s Monash University, pointed out another potential issue with parenting in response to your childhood: People desperate to do things differently can be, naturally, insecure about their parenting—and they can end up feeling exhausted and incompetent when their efforts don’t seem to be working. That, in itself, can lead to harsh discipline. “When we parent from fear or guilt,” as Stitt put it, “we don’t make the best parenting decisions.”

I was reminded of this when I talked with one parent who so badly wanted to treat her kids better than she’d been treated. She’d try really hard to be lenient—and then, when they misbehaved, she’d get frustrated and explode. There’s an element of Greek tragedy to it: Parents run away from their parents and sometimes end up right back in the same spot. Their efforts to avoid the prophecy can make it come true. The dilemma might be summed up in a situation Belsky, at UC Davis, shared from his own life with me. When his son was trying to decide whether to go into academia like his father, Belsky told him: “You don’t want to do what I do because I do it. But you don’t want to not do it because I do it.” Either way, he said, “I am controlling you.”

In a sense, he’s right: Our parents, dead or alive, often cannot help but majorly influence our decisions. But perhaps the key to not feeling controlled is in the way you reflect on your childhood—not to blame your parents, but to empathize with them. Once you’re in a similar position, you might realize just how hard it is to be the caregiver you want to be, how you can love someone fiercely and still fail them sometimes. You might think about why your parents made the mistakes they did—probably, in part, because of their own upbringing. And just by recognizing your similarities, you might feel closer to them.

The beauty of that birthright is that you can hold on to your parents’ good qualities while you let go of the bad ones. Most people I spoke with mentioned traits they admired in their parents and wanted to preserve. Take Benjamin Gilliom, who works in welding and steel fabrication; when he was a kid, his parents taught him to regularly help out neighbors, taking meals to elderly couples nearby or doing yard work for people who had just had surgery. Now he involves his kids in similar efforts. Myleik Teele, the founder of a hair-product company, has worked hard to develop a distinct caregiving style—but she still respects how tough her mom is, and wants to emulate that in her own way. “I’m not trying to throw everything out,” she told me.

Raising kids in your own way, then, doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch. It might be more like making a collage: taking lessons from your parents, your partner, and your friends, then rearranging them, turning them upside down, riffing in the margins. Admittedly, that can be messy, frustrating, and imperfect. But it is also freeing.

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