Why children repeat their parents’ mistakes
Ichigo is now discovering “new roots” and I can’t help noticing how positively charged this process is. Well, not so in nonfiction: some roots are bad roots.
While sorting out my own roots I wondered why people reproduce their parents’ mistakes in the treatment they give to their own children and life partners, even though they remember judging that behavior as wrong from the beginning.
One explanation may be that while being subjects of a particular bad treatment from their parents, as they grow from children to adults, young people start retaliating equivalently to protect themselves from harm. This proves to be a more successful defense strategy than others in the interaction with their parents because parents don’t like the taste of their medicine anymore than their children do, and try to avoid it altogether. What’s more, when witnessing their children’s gradual accession to the equal status of adults, parents cannot but gradually allow them to respond in kind.
This first part of the explanation says that when some response is successful in a relevant setting, people adopt the behavior even when they recognize it as wrong from some moral point of view (a “moral” point of view being a point of view that takes into consideration some larger context of interaction).
A second part says that with constant repetition the strategy becomes habitual. In time, children become like their parents. The patterned behavior then resists change even when the context is different. What starts as a wrong but successful response in a particular setting will also trigger in settings where it is wrong, unsuccessful, and rather looking like an uncalled for initiation than a response.
My favorite examples of bad treatment offered to children or life partners are various ways of forcing them to follow one’s own rhythm of doing things, spacing out, awkwardly keeping silent, but you can think of more colorful behaviors too.
The term “defense strategies” can be taken in a wide enough sense to cover retaliation or pay-back, as well as cooperative strategies, such as attempts to coping with the situation by partnering with the parents. This reading allows us to explain not only the reproduction of bad treatments offered to others but also the reproduction of bad conceptions of life. Think of an instance when the child is engaged in theoretical discussions by the parent, who already has a defined position on the matter. During discussions the child “proves” that she or he is on the same side with the parent. This is the successful strategy that efficiently protects one from the harm of long arguments in the context given. In time, those kinds of responses entrench into patterns of verbal interaction. With sufficient exercise they stimulates corresponding patterns of thinking, permeate related topics and shape an “approach to life”.
We may add an extension to the explanation sketched here that also accept the notion of repression. Even when an equivalent retaliation cannot be manifested (think of beating; at no stage of growth do parents allow their sons and daughters to beat them back), children may ‘repeatedly imagine’ responding in kind. The repressed response will later find an outlet.
But the essence of the explanation why children repeat their parents’ mistakes simply rests on recognizing that people adopt and reproduce successful behavior in spite of their moral objections, and that once a pattern of behavior is formed it becomes resistant to change.