Are parents responsible for the sort of people their children become? That's this week's question, and the answer is no, albeit equivocally.
Several parents have recently written me bemoaning the lifestyles their adult children have chosen to lead — lifestyles that feature addictions, criminality and flagrant irresponsibility. (The operative word in the previous sentence, by the way, is chosen.)
"What did we do wrong?" said parents ask, to which my answer is "Something, but so does everyone."
As is the case with every human endeavor, the rearing of a child, has never been, and never will be done perfectly. Furthermore, every human being comes into the world bearing unique traits. Lessons from one's own childhood as well as prior child-rearing experience can be of assistance, but in the final analysis, one learns to be a proper parent to Billy or Susie by raising Billy or Susie. There are general commonsense principles, but there is no one-size-fits-all formula.
Parenting is, in other words, a trial-and-error process. Everyone who attempts it, therefore, will commit error. The question becomes: Did the errors made by a certain parent or set of parents determine the trajectory of their child's life from beginning to end?
The notion that parenting is deterministic was proposed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the so-called "Father of Modern Psychology." It is because of Freud's proposition that most therapists attempt to link an individual's "issues" to features of his or her childhood. Supposedly, the fact that a person's father was an alcoholic and abandoned the family explains said person's chronic codependency, for example.
The problem, of course, is that for every codependent with an alcoholic parent there is one whose parents were emotionally healthy people. Dysfunctional people raise functional people, and functional people raise dysfunctional people.
When all is said and done, parenting is certainly an influence, but it is impossible to predict, based on a person's childhood experiences, the direction his life will take. When all is said and done, a person's present life circumstances are a matter of the choices he's made, also known as free will. Without free will, there is no personal responsibility; and without personal responsibility, everyone is helpless and hopeless.
The further problem is that some adults seem to thrive on blaming their parents (or a parent) for their shortcomings. The individuals in question construct soap operas out of their childhoods in which they are victims of their parents' villainy. That may be the most destructive form of irresponsibility. It often turns into a life sentence.
So, if your adult child is dysfunctional in some way, you may or may not have been an unwitting contributor (people who read parenting materials do not tend to be witting in that regard); nonetheless, it is your adult child's job to fix it, not yours.
Take it from the horse's mouth, there is nothing so liberating as coming to grips with personal responsibility.
Write to family psychologist John Rosemond at The Leadership Parenting Institute, 420 Craven St., New Bern, N.C. 28560 or email [email protected] Due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.