When kids are little, they want to be just like their parents. You can see them trying to copy a parent’s mannerisms and pretending to do the things they do at work and at home. It’s part of what we find so adorable about little kids. They just love their parents to bits and wish they could be exactly like them. It feels like the ideal relationship.
But lurking in the distance is adolescence when kids want more than anything to be nothing like their parents. If a parent does things one way, you can be sure a teenager will do the exact opposite. It’s purposeful and it can hurt at times.
The funny thing is that when they grow up and have children of their own, they go right back to where they started. They imitate their parents’ behavior without even realizing what they’re doing. Adult children become just like their parents in every way, copying both the good and bad parental traits.
According to psychologist D. Charles Williams, this is just the natural evolution of the relationship between sons and their fathers. But as a parent, I see the same thing happening between daughters and mothers. Williams has an acronym to describe this parent child phenomenon, with each letter capturing the essence of the five stages of this lifecycle process: IDEAL.
As small children, parents can do no wrong in the eyes of their children. They think their parents are capable of amazing feats. They think there is nothing a parent cannot do. In short, the small child idolizes a parent and wants to be just like him or her.
A son may copy his dad’s manner of walking, while a daughter may enjoy using her mother’s lipstick. In either case, a child strives to please a parent and gain acceptance and approval by actively imitating parental behavior. Children recognize the disparity between what a grownup can do and what a child can do. They hope that in mimicry of adult behavior, they will become more capable, too.
Teens, on the other hand, go through a prolonged stage in which discord is the primary theme of the parent/child relationship. Conflict is the teen’s main method of relating to a parent. Whatever values a parent has, his expectations for his children and the course he has chosen for himself, all this will be rejected by his teen. The teenager will seem to embrace the oddest philosophies he can find and will express disdain for the parent’s beliefs.
The spirit of rebellion can be intense and generate painful emotions. A teenager may resent or be fearful of parents at times. This stage of the parent/child relationship often carries over into the young adult years of the child’s early 20’s.
In adulthood, the nature of the distance between parent and child evolves into something else. In their 20’s children may even go so far as to cut off the relationship with a parent or take evasive action such as ignoring phone calls or avoiding family gatherings. The adult child is still trying to be different than the parent but rather than adopting behavior that stands in direct opposition to that of the parent, the child appears to be one-upping the parent. A mother known for her culinary talent, for example, may end up with a daughter who is a five-star restaurant chef who now sneers at her mother’s attempts at food preparation. Whatever mom can do, daughter can do it better.
This sort of competitive spirit is a sign that the child admires the parent’s path, but hopes to do things at least as well if not better than the parent. It’s a form of flattery no less than the idolization of a small child who imitates everything a parent says and does. Mark Twain had a great way of putting this behavior into words:
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
By the time the adult child reaches his 30’s or 40’s, there is a move toward acceptance of the parent. Not only has the child “forgiven” the parent for his perceived parenting mistakes, but the adult child begins to recognize and appreciate a parent’s talents and qualities that seemed so repugnant, once upon a teenager’s time. The child now realizes he didn’t know it all then, and probably doesn’t know it all now, either. But then again, neither does anyone else, including parents.
The adult child accepts that parent and child have valid differences and that this is okay. Parent and child may become friends at this point, sharing interests and learning to have polite debate without things becoming heated. By this time, the adult child may have a child of his own, further illustrating the difficulties and challenges inherent in raising children. Charles Wadsworth said:
“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong.”
The older adult child, at the age of 50 or so, becomes a parent’s legacy, the finished product created under the influence and direction of his parent before him. The child will be an imperfect mix of things, say cheerful, lazy, hot-tempered, easy-going, or funny, depending on the upbringing he received from his parents. The anger and hurt from the teen and young adult years has been tempered with time and in its place may be understanding and honor for the difficulties the parent must have had in raising a child.
There may still be issues in need of resolution between parent and child. If the parent dies before these issues are resolved, the adult child may repeat the same parenting “script” with his own child or children. If the child is lucky enough to have an elderly parent, there may be a form of role reversal in which it is the child who extends care for the aging parent. It has been said that the best revenge of the parent is to live long enough to become a burden to his children.
As we make our way through our lives, opportunities to learn life lessons are boundless. We have many chances to resolve our issues. If we’re blessed with children somewhere on down the line, we get to pass on our legacies to the next generation about what it is that makes life worth living.
Getting through each of the stages of the parent/child relationship and making it to the next—from idolizing to discord to evolving, acceptance, and morphing into the final stage of becoming the parent’s legacy, is the IDEAL goal that every parent and child can and should aspire to reach.