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What not to Learn from Your Parents

Philosophers tell us that we are haunted by the sins of our parents for four generations. And whether you buy into that dreary prophesy or not, it's hard to argue that, for better or worse, we unwittingly emulate more than a few of the things our parents brought to the party you call your childhood.

While exceptions abound, blue collar parents routinely beget blue collar children. Likewise for the children of dentists and doctors - the medical profession is rife with nepotistic* leanings. Children of smokers are, according to the American Medical Association, three times more likely to take up the habit themselves, and statistically much more likely to experiment with drugs. Children of parents who spend their holidays serving meals to the poor are orders of magnitude more likely to grab an apron and do the same.

Parents are the primary crafters of our values and our world view, which become the determinants of many of our adult choices and their consequences. So if your parents are regular citizen of the year nominees in your town, good for you, you've had good grounding on what works and what doesn't. But for the rest of us, with very human parents who, bless their antiquated souls, did the best they could, it may be time to look in the genetic mirror. Because the very things that used to drive us crazy about mom and dad may be the very things that are defining us today. And the issue isn't always one of character or health. Certain lifestyle tendencies you wouldn't immediately associate with social heredity do, in fact, owe their origins to your parents.

Issues of money management are prime candidates for this phenomenon. Most of our parents were raised by hard working people who lived through the great depression. Which means, in all likelihood they'll consider the stock market a foolish proposition until their dying day. U.S. Savings Bonds with their sub-2% return, that's the ticket. This belief seasoned your parents with a tendency to fear all things non-bank related. Chances are their retirement savings have something to do with a pension fund - which is rapidly going the way of the 8-track cassette player and David Hasslehoff's career - and a 401K. If you're doing the same, or worse, if your money is earning passbook returns at the local savings and loan, call your parents and thank them for condemning you to a retirement that will depend on social security to make ends meet, which in itself is a much worse bet than the stock market.

One of the most significant generational influences is gender roles within the marriage relationship. In your parents' world there is women's work and there is men's work, and if ever the two shall meet it becomes a topic of fascination, right up there with female astronauts. Never mind that your father still sports a Tom Selleck moustache and your mom still clings to the belief that it's her life's mission to serve him dinner every night precisely at five o'clock. The real issue is your paradigm on gender roles, and if there's a distinctly misogynistic** air about them, again, mom and dad are the likely perpetrators.

The list of parental influences is long, and it covers the very stuff of our daily business and relationships. Politics, child rearing (the "do as I say and not as I do" syndrome, a big favorite of smokers and those who tend toward road rage), health and fitness issues (your father may have jogged with a rubber girdle in the belief that he can melt off that spare tire), product preferences (your father and his father may have been staunchly loyal "Ford men") and a world view in general all have a way of filtering through the years into your own subconscious choices and behaviors.

It isn't all bad, and it isn't hopeless. The key to liberation from parental poisoning is awareness and honest self-appraisal. Take the time to inventory the idiosyncrasies of your parents and do a gut-check on your own life. If you like what you see, perhaps a hug is in order at the next family gathering. And if not, the choice to change things is completely yours. It's too late for the blame game, and it's too late to show your parents the error of their ways. Better to just love them for who they are, as well as who they were.

*as in nepotism, showing favoritism to a relative

**as in misogyny, a hatred of women

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