The Powerful Influence of Parents
The influence of our parents is on my mind right now. Even as we become fully functioning adults and parents ourselves, it’s intriguing to consider how much of who we are is directly attributable to beliefs and experiences we encountered as children of our parents.
I’m reminded of this in reading Into My Father’s Wake, by journalist and author Eric Best. Best leaves his job, buys a sailboat, and sails solo from San Francisco to Hawaii and return in an attempt to resolve his relationship with his parents, especially his father.
A respected journalist, Best’s marriage is failing, he feels dead-ended in his job, and he struggles with alcohol and anger. The 50 day, 5,000 mile solo journey is his attempt to find himself and correct the path of his life.
Adult Children of Abusive Parents
Interspersed with fascinating descriptions of his sailing adventures, Best shares pleasant childhood memories of long sailing voyages with his father and disturbing memories of brutal beatings with a rubber hose at his father’s hands. He recalls his mother’s silent support of her husbands discipline, and struggles to come to terms with both parents’ treatments.
Most children are raised without the abusive behaviors demonstrated in Best’s book, yet don’t we all grow up carrying mixed images of our parents’ behaviors?
Psychologists offer an explanation that makes sense. Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. is a psychologist in private counseling practice who has authored several parenting books exploring the various phases of parent/child relationships as a child moves from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.
Pickhardt explains that the child idolizes and worships her parents, the adolescent criticizes and blames her parents as she begins the process of independence, and the adult rationalizes parental behaviors as she begins to understand the complexities of parental behavior.
The children of abusive parents experience conflicting and inconsistent adult behavior, at times nurturing and caring, at other times abusive and hurtful. Given the child’s total dependence and natural tendency to look up to her parents, the abused child is confused, ceases to trust, and may even assume she’s part of the problem. Best demonstrates how these conflicts carry into adulthood.
Children of non-abusive parents also experience conflicts. We see behaviors that are loving and caring as well as darker behaviors such as anger. We see our parents’ faults, tend to focus on those in adolescence, and may even carry their faults into adulthood as the reasons for our own failures.
Life Purpose and Our Parents
Looking at more positive aspects of parental influence, in The Celestine Prophecy, author James Redfield suggests that each person’s life purpose evolves from and extends the life purpose of their parents. Intrigued by this, I followed the suggested process of examining what each of my parents stood for (their strong beliefs and values) and where they fell short (weaknesses and limitations).
Sure enough, I could clearly see how my own life extended what each of my parent’s stood for and how I’ve developed interests and strengths which they lacked.
Since this analysis was valuable and informational to me, I added the process to my Purpose in Life Workshop content, expecting that others would also find valuable insights.
I was surprised by the responses of workshop participants. Though some found the process positive and helpful, a majority reacted strongly against the hypothesis, even resisting my encouragement to keep an open mind and explore the possibilities. It seemed a large number of people attribute their life’s problems directly to their parents.
Coming to Terms with Parents
What does this all mean? To me it simply means that parents are human beings, with the full range of human strengths and weaknesses. Parenting is tough work. Our parents made some mistakes along the way, as we have in our parenting roles.
On the road to adulthood, we’re exposed to many examples of behaviors, including the very influential examples of our parents. Whether they were outstanding parents or lacking in many ways, as adults our behaviors are ours alone. We can chose whether to copy behaviors of our parents or discard them. We can chose whether to cherish their parental talents or denounce them.
Eric Best reaches this conclusion near the end of his solitary 50 day voyage, deciding to cherish the love and care his father displayed in teaching him to sail, while forgiving his brutal discipline as a terrible weakness of his father’s own personal struggles.
Into My Father’s Wake is a good story of a man’s journey of self-discovery. Those without sailing knowledge may struggle a bit with the sailor’s terminology, but all will appreciate the vivid imagery Best conveys as he describes the beauty and danger of solo-oceanic travel. I found that sharing Best’s struggles with the human frailties of his parents stimulated useful self-reflection on the influence of my own parents on my adult life.