Are You Still Your Parents’ Child?

Are You Still Your Parents' Child?
Once you become a parent yourself, it's time to move beyond the old roles of childhood.
Paul Thigpen

© 1996 by Paul Thigpen

"The two shall become one flesh." These words from the book of Genesis, familiar to us from many wedding ceremonies, emphasize the finality of the wedding vow (see Genesis 2:24). They remind us that when we marry, we form with our mate a single new creation, and the integrity of the family we establish must be respected.

Not often, though, do we look closely at the words introducing that biblical statement: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife" (Genesis 2:24 NAB, emphasis added). In this brief line we find a profound truth that's too often forgotten: The establishment of a new family requires a separation from the old.

That's not to say, of course, that "leaving" our father and mother means being estranged from them. But the day should come when we cut the emotional umbilical cord of our childhood so we can relate to our parents as adult peers. Sooner or later we must move beyond our sense of submission to them and dependence on them, and they must give up their role of responsibility and control in our lives.

This "weaning" process is even more important when we become parents ourselves. If we haven't cut the apron strings by the time our own children come along, the results can be troublesome: conflicts with our spouse and parents; confusion in our children about who's in charge; loss of authority in our own parental role; lack of the emotional and financial resources necessary to care for our children; and resentment all around.

Of course, at times it may be difficult to tell the difference between an enduring (and desirable) intimacy with our parents as friends, and an unhealthy continuation of the old parent-child roles. To help sort out the situation in your family, give yourself the test below. If your honest answers to those questions convince you that you need to cut the apron strings, here are some suggestions for making the change:

1. Let go of the past. Failure to mature in our relationship with our parents often results from "unfinished business" from our childhood. If we think they wronged us in some way as we were growing up — that they somehow still "owe" us — then we'll remain in emotional bondage to them. We'll demand that they somehow give us the long-overdue care or support we think they should have provided when we were small. And when they still don't perform according to our expectations, we'll grow bitter.

The solution? We have no choice but to forgive if we want to grow up. By forgiveness, we don't mean trying to forget the offense (we can't) or trying to justify it (it may not be justifiable). Instead, to forgive means to let go of the past unconditionally: to cancel the debt; to stop nursing and rehearsing the injury; to say in our hearts, "You don't owe me any longer"; to renounce our desire to punish the offenders. It's a recognition that we too are "in debt" to our parents, to God, and to others for our own offenses, and that we stand in need of mercy as much as they do.

2. Draw appropriate boundary lines where necessary. Some times you're willing to cut the apron strings, but your parents are not. If that's the case, you have to establish some limits, gently but firmly, on your parents' behavior.

For example, if your father has a pattern of overriding your parental authority with your children, you must let him know clearly that you can't let that happen anymore, and then provide rules for his relationship with them. If he won't agree to your boundary lines, let him know you'll have to limit your family's contact with him to prevent the problem from continuing. He'll feel angry and hurt at first, but he'll eventually come around if he wants to maintain the relationship.

3. Cultivate your relationship with your spouse as your primary source of advice, comfort and support. Get in the habit of going to your mate first with problems, decisions, and emotional needs. Learn how to hammer out an agreement with your spouse on family issues, then stand firm together on your decisions. Avoid pitting your parents and your spouse against each other. Weigh carefully your mate's complaints about your parents; he or she is likely to be more objective about them than you are.

4. Build a personal support network beyond your parents. Seek out other adults — friends, neighbors, church members, professional helpers — who can assist you in meeting legitimate needs more objectively, without the entanglements that inevitably arise from family relations. Swap insights with people in circumstances similar to yours; share burdens with trusted acquaintances. Consult helpful books and other literature.

5. Take responsibility for your decisions and their consequences. You're the parent now, so in your home, you and your spouse are in charge, and the buck stops with you. Develop financial responsibility especially so you won't be tempted to have your parents bail you out.

6. Launch out in some new directions. Don't be afraid of taking risks and learning from your mistakes. Try some new approaches to old problems that your parents may have never even thought about. Establish a few new family traditions in your home.

7. Above all, remember that your parents are not responsible for your happiness, nor are you responsible for theirs. You don't have to have their approval for everything you do. Learn to disagree amiably — as real friends do.

Admittedly, cutting the emotional umbilical cord isn't always easy. Misunderstandings and frustrations are part of the process. But when the going gets tough, just remember: Though you're losing a parent, you're gaining a friend. Best of all, by modeling to your children a healthy peer relationship with your parents, you'll be preparing them well for their own transition to independence when the time is right.

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Leaving Your Father and Mother: A Self-Test

Have you cut the apron strings with your parents? Here's a self-test. Answer these questions as honestly as you can. Then have your spouse answer them for you as well to see whether he or she agrees with your answers.

· Do I run to my parents to be consoled or justified whenever I have an argument with my spouse?

· Do I insist on submitting even small decisions to my parents for their evaluation and then feel guilty if I don't follow their advice?

· Even when I don't ask my parents' advice, do I frequently worry about whether they will approve of my choices?

· If my parents express disapproval, do I labor to try to change their minds? Do I insist that they must approve of my decisions?

· Do I have frequent arguments with my parents, especially over expectations we have for each other?

· Do I feel jealous of my parents' relationship with one or more of my siblings–or, if a parent has remarried, with a stepsibling?

· Do I sometimes feel compelled to do things the way my parents did them, even when a new way might seem better?

· Do I find myself giving in to my parents' requests or demands even when I don't want to or when I think it unwise to do so?

· Am I financially dependent on my parents? Do I expect them to bail my family out of financial scrapes or lend us money frequently for new purchases?

· Do I spend long hours with my parents, either on the phone or in their home, in a way that takes time from my responsibilities as a spouse and parent?

· If my parents live at a distance, do I insist that my family spend all its vacation time with them?

· Do I allow my parents to make decisions involving my children that override my parental authority?

· Do I frequently shift the responsibility of child care onto my parents?

· Is my relationship with my parents a source of frequent conflict with my spouse?

No one of these symptoms in itself is necessarily a sign that you have a problem. But if you answered yes to many of the questions, you may well need to make some changes.

Keep in mind also that we sometimes achieve a healthy separation from one parent but not from the other. You may need to examine your relationships with your father and mother separately to get an accurate picture of your situation.