By Aisha Sultan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The television had been blaring NickToons for at least two hours. Probably more like four.
And then I snapped.
“If you guys don’t turn off that television, I’m going to throw it out of the window,” I told my children. With great flourish, I unplugged the cable wires and waved them around as if the TV-tossing was imminent. “This thing is turning your brain into vegetables!”
Right then, it hit me: I had turned into my parents. Throughout my childhood, I had heard them threaten all sorts of damage to the TV set.
My 5-year-old sulked out of the room, offering this parting shot: “You are totally stressing me out. You are the only person in the world who doesn’t like TV.”
Believe me, I like TV plenty. I just could not handle the thought of my children watching it for another minute. I had been swamped with work, and my children were home from camp. I was stressed and frustrated. It was one of moments when our conscious mind takes a back seat, and we react on auto-parent. It’s in these moments that we are most susceptible to reverting to our own childhood, stepping into the most familiar roles of authority.
I’d like to think I can pick and choose from my parents’ traits and quirks, their strengths and shortcomings. For example, I have deliberately adopted my mother’s way of giving us The Eye when we would get out of line. I can shoot that look with deadly efficiency to my own children. I have continued the cycle of mortification that began with my father’s habit of singing along with whatever song was on the radio, regardless of his (in)ability to carry a tune.
I did not expect to mimic their crazies.
But sure enough, I’ve repeated several of the same insane comments I had heard so often, although I tend to retain a single Urdu word in the phrase and the rest gets translated to English: “You are not a janwar (animal). Behave like a human being.”
But why do we turn into our parents? Are we destined, through nature and years of nurture, to replicate their ways? Is this the cosmic parental reckoning, where we end up with children who behave exactly as we did as kids, and we respond in the same manner as our parents did?
It’s not quite so linear.
Cheryl Nietfeldt, a psychologist who practices in Creve Coeur, has guided many families through therapy during the past 35 years. She says there are two major reasons we revert into our parents.
“All those years we spent with our parents, we were learning how to handle certain situations,” she said. It was once believed that those who were either physically or verbally abused as children were likely to repeat that behavior, but newer research shows that’s not necessarily the case. A subset of people will respond that way under pressure, while another will consciously avoid such a response.
“But (they) will struggle with what they should do,” she said, because they lacked models of appropriate parenting. They may end up asking friends, reading books, basically trying to re-educate themselves.
“Many of us, who did not grow up in extreme situations, don’t think too much about it,” she said. Certain features such as temperament and personality are inherited traits.
So, those who may be more impulsive might find it harder under stress to think, “How can I help this child? What do I want to do here?”
The key involves being able to kick a habit into a thought pattern. She said parents can ask themselves: What am I hoping to teach this child? What’s the most effective way to get there rather than the first response?
“What we do as adults, when those words come out of our mouths, I think we revisit, ‘Is that what I want to do now?’ ”
She says most of our inherited parental quirks are harmless.
“The vast majority of us came to adulthood pretty well.”
Her advice reminded me that my frustration that morning had little to do with the boxed set endlessly entertaining my children. It had much more to do with my own guilt about that electronic babysitter.
Of course, that’s no reason to shoot the messenger.
Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.