What If Your Parents Controlled Your Life?

One day, I want my daughter to marry a kind man who adores her, makes a good living, and is a wonderful father. I hope she finds a way to pursue art as a career because she’s really talented. For my son, I hope for a loving wife who enjoys sports as much as he does and is a great mother. Whatever he does for a career, I would love for him to use his gifts as a writer. I hope they give me a few grandchildren to spoil.

Guess what. None of that matters. I know that. To be honest, I’m really glad my children have the freedom to create their own stories just the way that I did. I imagine my mother pictured a very different life for me than the one I lead. Had she planned my life, I  would probably be a homemaker who keeps a very tidy house and hosts elaborate dinner parties. My children wouldn’t have quirky names. I would still live in the South. My husband would make enough money to provide the kids and me the best of everything. And there would be nothing wrong with any of that except that it wouldn’t be my story.

I have written other posts about allowing children to be their own people (Baseball and Ballet, Different and Delightful, Inside My Head). This post is about a related theme: allowing children to create their own stories. It was inspired by a family I began seeing about a year ago. In the few months before our first session, Eli and his parents had begun arguing constantly. Prior to this time, they had enjoyed a close and open relationship. Mom and Dad believed that Eli’s girlfriend of six months was the cause of the problems. Eli didn’t disagree entirely, but he attributed the problems to his parents’ disapproval of his girlfriend rather than to his girlfriend herself. After his parents explained why they thought Jolie was all wrong for their son, this was his response:

We’re 16. We’re not getting married, and if we do one day, oh well. Eli, age 16

This was a tricky situation for this family. Mom and Dad were nice, well-meaning people, who had been born, raised, educated and still lived in Bucks County, PA, outside of Philadelphia. For their entire lives, their peer group had been white and affluent. They were raised in secular Jewish families in which there was a clear expectation that they would marry within their religion. Because Eli was a very bright kid with a learning disability, he had not attended the local public school his parents had. Instead, he had made a long commute since 7th grade to a school for children who learn differently. This school was located in a much more diverse suburb of Philadelphia and drew from the greater metropolitan area. There was great diversity of race, ethnicity, class, political thought, and religion among the student body. And Eli had fallen hard for a classmate that was very different from himself on several dimensions. Jolie was African-American, Catholic, and came from a working class, urban family. Like Eli, she was bright, learning disabled, and working hard to get into a good college. Both of the young people had big aspirations for the future and dreamed of careers in the medical field. Looking past the demographics, there were a lot of reasons why these two young people were drawn to one another.

Discussions at home among Eli and his parents had been disastrous. Eli wanted to put the focus on what he saw as his parents’ prejudice. He believed they disapproved of Jolie because of her skin color and her faith. He accused them of being racists and snobs. Mom and Dad adamantly denied that their disapproval had anything to do with race or religion. They were hurt and angered by Eli’s accusations. They couldn’t convince their son that it was his behavior that made them believe Jolie was a negative influence. They threatened to transfer Eli to the local public high school.

This was painful to watch. Eli, Mom, and Dad all felt misunderstood and unfairly judged. There seemed to be no point of overlap from which to begin a productive and respectful conversation. I have to be honest; Mom and Dad did sound pretty intolerant when they talked about Jolie. It would have been easy for me to write them off as bad parents and bigots. I knew, however, that their worry for Eli came from their own lack of experience with people from diverse backgrounds and that their actions were motivated by fear for their son rather than hatred. At 16, Eli was just too young and egocentric to understand his parents’ motivations. And the argument that people don’t usually marry their high school sweethearts was less than reassuring to Mom and Dad who were – you guessed it – high school sweethearts.

Luckily, there was one thing that the three members of this family could agree on, at least in principle: every individual has the right to create his or her own story. I was able to get Mom and Dad to think back to their own experiences as teenagers and instances in which they acted against their parents’ wishes. Acting against parents’ wishes is not only a normal developmental phenomenon; it is a necessary component of adolescent emotional growth.  Right away, Mom shared a story about her own parents’ disapproval of her decision to marry her high school sweetheart. They believed it was important for her to date other people, that she and her boyfriend were too far from financial independence and stability, and that, at 21, the couple was simply too young to marry. We spent some time thinking about how that experience had felt to them as young adults, about how outraged they were by the parental attempts to control their lives, and about how much more determined they were to marry in the face of that parental disapproval. I asked them to think about what it may have meant for them if they had allowed Mom’s parents to dictate their decision-making. As Eli looked on and listened, Mom and Dad visibly softened their hard-line position on Jolie, and we were able to turn our focus to the immediate issue: the recent escalation in arguments between Eli and his parents.

It took many weeks of therapy to get this family back on track. Part of the solution was Mom and Dad agreeing to get to know Jolie by inviting her to their house for dinner and a movie. They promised not to make critical comments about her and to stop threatening to take Eli out of the school he loved. Eli agreed to respect the rules and limits of the household so that any question about Jolie’s influence on him could be put to rest.

After meeting Jolie, many but not all of the parents’ concerns dissipated. They agreed that she was a very bright and well-mannered girl and that it was unlikely Eli had learned to be disrespectful and argumentative from her. They continued to be concerned about the social impact dating outside of his race, religion, and class would have on Eli, but they worked hard to keep these concerns to themselves. In one of our final sessions Mom shared that whenever she was tempted to say something to Eli about his choice of a girlfriend, she asked herself, “What if my parents controlled my life?”. This question served to remind her of the simple truth we had discussed in our early family therapy sessions: her child has to be allowed to create his own story.

While this therapy story had a successful ending, I feel fairly certain that Eli’s family has more challenges ahead because a fundamental generational split was created when Mom and Dad decided to send Eli to a school where he would be exposed to people from many diverse backgrounds. They still hold onto to “old school” ideas about race, religion, and marriage while their son cannot understand their way of thinking. I like to think that it is this type of experience that will move our country further and further away from its bigoted past. I like to think that older generations will learn from today’s youth, many of whom do not see difference in race, class, religion, or sexual orientation as a big deal and who are ready to embrace others, differences and all. And I like to think that this generational divide will shrink over time as more young people, who easily see past demographic differences, insist on creating their own stories.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]

About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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1 Response to What If Your Parents Controlled Your Life?

  1. Pingback: The Biggest Parenting Question | What Kids Want Us to Know

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