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February 04 2013

Ed XC Skiing in Vermont

When my dad talks about sports cars, my eyes glaze over.

“This one has two tail pipes because…”


“The clutch on this one…”


“Did you hear the way that engine roars?”


My mom and I have our differences too. Take our approaches to winter recreation for example.

I’m most likely to drive our station wagon to a remote trail in the snow covered mountains for a cross country ski. The trail will be poorly marked, I’ll probably crash going down at least one hill, and there’s no chance that I’ve ever dressed “warm enough.”

During the winter, my mom will most likely be taking a leisurely stroll around the mall or riding an exercise bike while watching the news.

There are days when I wonder how we can be so different from each other.

Then again, some days I see my dad’s enthusiasm or my mother’s cleanliness shining through in myself. I have my dad’s sense of humor and love for hockey. If you see me around the house on a Saturday, you’ll see I have my mom’s sense of order as I organize, sweep, and mop.

If you ever ask me why I’m so cautious and a bit anxious, I’ll first ask “What do you mean?” and then I will remember who I get that from: both of my parents.

While I like to tell myself that I’m unique and that I’m my own person carving out my own way in the world—a true individual—the truth is that I have a lot in common with my parents. Their marks are all over me.

And when I look at them, I see both the influence of my grandparents and my parents’ attempts to distinguish themselves from my grandparents.

I’m reminded of a friend who, while in college, got into an argument with his mom. He saw that his mom was using the same guilt and manipulation tactics that his grandmother used on his mom over the years. Thinking he could finally get her to see his side of things, he said, “You’re doing the same thing that grandma does to you!”

This did not have the desired effect. In fact, he had said the worst thing possible.

“I am NOT like her!” his mother shouted back at him.

We bear both the good and the bad from our parents. There’s an inevitability about this to a certain extent. I don’t know how much of it is genetic, how much of it is learned through experience, and how much of it is spiritual. We want to correct the mistakes we’ve seen our parents make, but at the same time their influence sticks with us for good and for bad.

And so we brace ourselves.

When I talk to adults in their 20’s and 30’s, the majority of them have rejected one thing or another that their parents value. They’ve all experienced some kind of battle over control and/or rejection. They’ve all vowed that they won’t do the same thing to their kids.

They have all braced themselves: I will not try to control my children when they grow up.

In almost every case, these adults have experienced tension with their parents over religion, work, education, child-raising, or politics. Sometimes certain topics are off limits. Sometimes relationships are deeply damaged.

Perhaps parents can’t help but try to control their kids, to try to exert influence over their choices. In just the same way that grown children can’t help thinking for themselves and choosing their own paths, parents struggle to stop butting in.

Today I’m bouncing Ethan on my knee, and there aren’t too many things we disagree on. Sure, we could make some progress in how we feel about naps, but otherwise, we’re on the same page. Still, some day, he’s bound to make choices that I don’t like. When he’s in his 20’s, conflict is certain to come.

What will I do then? When do I let go? Will I make the mistakes that I see other parents making because I’ll finally be in their shoes and can’t imagine doing anything else?

Some friends have to avoid certain topics with their parents.

Other friends have to avoid their parents except for a few major holidays.

Others see their parents all of the time, but they dread each gathering.

A friend of mine grieved her parents deeply by voting as a Democrat. Family gatherings are now filled with tension. She is alienated from her siblings. All of this because of what she does on one day in November every two years.

She’s hurting, but she has an interesting perspective. One day she mentioned to me, “What if my son becomes a libertarian or starts watching Fox News all of the time? How would I react to THAT?”

I’m starting to brace myself for this. What if Ethan doesn’t believe Christianity? What if Ethan starts quoting Mike Huckabee to me? What if he prefers… and I tremble to write this… basketball over hockey?

I am both like and unlike my parents, and the trick is that my parents didn’t get to choose how we would be similar or different. Some things stuck while other things didn’t. The same will go for Ethan.

Perhaps the greatest struggle comes with believing that a child rejecting something important to a parent is not the same thing as rejecting the parent. I have rejected some things that are really important to both of my parents. We have some huge differences, but we survived those turbulent years where I was carving out my own path to become my own person.

For me, rejecting Catholicism, malls, or race cars was never about rejecting my parents. I was just moving through my life with my own sense of integrity, asking hard questions, and seeking out what made sense to me.

If I could write something to myself in twenty years, I’d say, “Ethan can reject what you believe and what you like without rejecting you.” As much as I want to guide and direct him to make good choices, I’m bracing myself even today to believe that.

What can I say? I like to plan ahead. I get that from my mother.


  1. I can relate to this. My kids are grown and have families of their own now. I really did not want to be like my mother who wanted to control every aspect of our lives. To a good degree, I succeeded. My mother took it ill – she felt that raising our children differently from her child rearing patterns meant that I thought that she had not been a good mother. She was needy and insecure all her life through. I’ve not been a perfect mother by any means. But by God’s grace, my children have boldly faced life and are not afraid to do things differently than I did. And, they still talk to me.

    • Ed

      I’m glad you’ve been able to be that kind of mother for them. Thanks for sharing!

  2. jazmin

    Being in my mid 30s I still think my mom is pretty close to perfect as a parent. She did and does have some parenting flaws which I am trying not to emulate with my son, but by far I will copy most of her parenting skills. She even has some qualities that, try as I can, I cannot imitate. For example, in my husband’s words, “Babe she’s made out of steel,” my mother has a strength of will and character that my anti-anxiety meds could never give.
    Perhaps, I also admire her more than you admire your parents, because she had a rough childhood. She grew up pratically an orphan in a third world country and when came to this country after marrying my dad, her prince charming turned out to be a frog, so she ended up raising two childern on her own. Maybe if I had grown up middle class in a two parent household, I would have more complaints about her. The reality of it is, my mother is my QUEEN. If I end up being half the mother she has been, my children will be very lucky indeed.

    • Ed

      What a wonderful tribute!

  3. Luke

    “Perhaps the greatest struggle comes with believing that a child rejecting something important to a parent is not the same thing as rejecting the parent.”

    I feel like there are lifetimes worth of hurt and misunderstanding bottled up in that sentence. Great words here today, Ed.

    • Ed

      And then there are my 20’s when I thought I needed to be “better” than them.

  4. This is so good, Ed. It’s been hard to tease out the difference between rejecting some of my parents’ beliefs or preferences and rejecting them. They don’t always see how we can simply agree to disagree. But when we focus on our love for one another, instead of the ways I now differ from them, we keep to a good path for all of us. Maybe someday they’ll understand and hopefully I can continue to extend that grace to the people in my life.

    • Ed

      Yes. It’s so tough to take that rejection when someone we love can’t fathom that we are different.

  5. Alanna

    Not recreating our kids in our own image, but rather in HIS image – aka: the one He created in them – is hard, but so rewarding. I learned from not having that growing up, and I really want my children to be able to truly live – and be brave doing it. Letting them make mistakes along the way and learn as they go…. I’m not so sure there is anything that prepares you for that part, but I’d rather them live fully than not at all. I try keeping my eyes on the future hope I have that they will in fact become themselves, whatever paths they may traverse to get there, and that we will be friends as adults. We are friends now, except when we can’t be for reasons all parents understand, and I greatly hope our home is a place they WANT to come home to when they get out on their own. I love them most often because we are not alike. It is still hard to imagine not being the boundary in their life that they can bounce and stretch and grow against. Much to pray for – I think parenting is a lesson in prayer and faith more than anything else in the world. But love covers over much, as does time, and I don’t want them to feel like me with subjects that are taboo and lifestyles that are off limits. How can you be real if you cannot also be different at times?

    • Ed

      Sounds like the wisdom of a mom with a bunch of kids! Great insights Alanna.

  6. I had a conversation with my mom this week where I confessed to feeling like I take all the worst traits of both parents when it comes to conflict management. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Ed

      It’s tough stuff to spot. It’s even harder to accept and then do something about it.

  7. Wow! This is a subject I have been working on for several months. We have 2 biological and 4 internationally adopted children ranging in age from 12 to 25. When they were little and it seemed a new one was always joining the family things were controlled chaos. As they have grown up and begun to leave the nest, I find myself floundering. I couldn’t figure out how to keep all the balls in the air that I was trying to juggle. Then it dawned on me….not all of those balls are mine to juggle! I did my part. I taught the how and why of obedience. I provided opportunity to travel the US and learn all kinds of things. I led them to Jesus and lived an imperfect example of following Him but a perfect example of his grace. I can have a seat now. At the ages of 19, 21 and 25 (with a wife no less!) it is not up to ME to determine or control the outcome. God is in control of that and He will bring them through whatever He has in store for them. Such freedom!! I see the bits and pieces of my parents and their parenting in myself. I embrace some of it and discard some but it does not affect the love I have for them. I am finally becoming comfortable with being the parent I am and not worrying that they will be hurt that I choose a different tact than they did.

    I think Ethan is a lucky boy :-)

  8. This is wonderfully written, Ed. And whether or not we believe we had a good parenting experience in our family of origin, we will always have pieces of our childhood/growing up that we do not want our own kids to experience. It will happen to you when Ethan is grown and raising his own family – he will make decisions that you didn’t or wouldn’t. What I’ve had such fun discovering is that in most ways, my kids are doing this parenting thing so much better than I ever did. (I wish my grandkids went to bed earlier – but that is my only critique. . . and I never make that one out loud.) My kids are much more confident parents than I was – and I’d like to think that their father and I are at least a little bit responsible for that. I hope so. Because helping our children believe that they, by the grace of God, have the ability to choose to do life well whether or not they do life like we did it – that’s about the best gift we can give them.

  9. I feel like we could spend hours talking this through over coffee (but without any hockey in the background, okay? I don’t get hockey). I cannot even tell you how many times I’ve said, “I’ll NEVER be like them.” And yet, sometimes …

  10. “Ethan can reject what you believe and what you like without rejecting you.” Yes, I think I need to insert my own children’s names and tuck this away somewhere, or post it on my bedroom mirror.
    I always say one of the hardest things about parenting is letting our kids make their own mistakes or choices. But I pray that I am giving them just enough freedom to make their own decisions.


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