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Turning Into Your Parents

The real parent trap. “I’m turning into my parents.”

Family photo (Flickr/Michael Hanscom)

Family photo (Flickr/Michael Hanscom)

We set out to be our own people. Our own men. Our own women. With our own ways and voices and views. And then there comes a moment – maybe quickly, maybe in middle age, maybe late – when we turn around and think “I have become my parents.”

My father. My mother. In a tone of voice, or a turn of phrase. A way of buttering toast. Or of seeing the world. Or of treating the world. We may welcome it. We may abhor it. It’s hard to dodge it.

This hour, On Point: becoming our parents.

-Tom Ashbrook


James Wood, literary critic, essayist and novelist. Staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, where his new essay is “Becoming Them: Our parents, our selves.” Professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard University.

Vanessa Jackson, licensed clinical social worker.

From Tom’s Reading List

Psychology Today “Once it was a girl’s dream to be just like her mom. Now it’s more like every woman’s nightmare. Yet it happens to us all. Like Eliza we hear our mother’s words leaving our own mouths, or we look in a mirror and catch a glimpse of a familiar expression – not our own – and, as we get older, we see surprising reflections of our mother stare back at us every time we wash our face or brush our teeth”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch “‘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.”

Daily MailMaybe it’s because my wife is pregnant with our first child. Maybe it’s because a nursery has been built in what used to be the attic and I’ve started thinking about schools.  Or ­possibly it’s because in sympathy with my wife’s expansion over the past few months, I have swelled to 13st and taken to wearing V-neck jumpers over a shirt and tie. But whatever it is, the moment has finally come when I have started turning into my father.”


When Doves Cry — Prince

Like My Mother Does — Lauren Alaina



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  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    Years ago, fathers threatened their daughters suitors with shotguns if the girl came home late.

    Today, fathers break the ice by saying, “So…how long have you had that earring?”

    Years ago, fathers passed on clothing to their sons.

    Today, kids wouldn’t touch the old mans clothes if they were sliding naked down an icicle.

    Years ago, if a father put a roof over his family’s head, he was a success.

    Today, it takes a roof, deck, pool, and 4-car garage. And that’s just the vacation home.

    For the parents out there:


    • nlpnt

      “Years ago, fathers passed on clothing to their sons.
      Today, kids wouldn’t touch the old mans clothes if they were sliding naked down an icicle.”
      -Their grandfather’s clothes are another matter entirely…

  • Gary Trees

    I’m turning into my father and I know it.  The thing is, I wholly welcome it.  My dad is a pretty great guy.  I find that the only things that I dislike about my father’s demeanor I have substitued in my own personality with the softer characteristics of my mother.  I realize that I am the proverbial yin-yang of both of my parents personalities and I do not resent this; I relish it.

  • Jacob Clark

    I’m more worried about my wife turning into my mother-in-law than about me turning into my Dad. 

    • Ljsb

      My in-laws tried to talk my husband out of marrying me for exactly that reason.  That was over 20 years ago….maybe he should have followed their advice?

  • http://www.facebook.com/irvwestyouthadvocate Irv West

    I work with troubled youth and watch, in distress, how abused kids become abusive parents. We seek out what we are familiar with, regardless of how destructive it might be.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    All I can contribute is Mark Twain:

    When I was fourteen I thought my father was the most ignorant old coot ever to walk the earth. When I turned twenty-one it amazed me how much he’d learned in the last seven years.

    (Disclaimer: I don’t have kids, as I may have mentioned in this space.)

  • robinvermont

    I first noticed this when my children stared showing mannerisms of my father, with whom they had spent relatively little time; and I realized they were getting them through me!  It makes me wonder how many of my mannerisms my great-great-great-great-great grandfather would recognize.

  • geraldfnord

    I think many among us become our parents to the extent that we really know of no other way of dealing with children.  Neither my wife nor I seem very much like any of our parents, and our childless state may take the credit therefor.

    I first read Philip Larkin’s “This be the Verse” when I was about twelve; I followed its
    recommendations and am much happier, I suspect, than I should have been
    had I followed my programming.  If children are not for you don’t have them—I think the worst
    parenting and parent-parroting come from people who really didn’t want
    to do it in the first place, much as many other bad jobs are done in
    protest at doing them at all.

    (I have altered the poem from
    the superior original of that I not mar the delicate eyes and ears of
    anyone present who has never heard English cursing:)

    They screw you up, your mum and dad.
      They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were screwed up in their turn
      By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
      And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
      It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
      And don’t have any kids yourself.

    (For my part, I rejected Beethoven because I couldn’t stand this Classical composer’s works when played as if he were a Romantic, as the classical music radio station available to us tended to favour…God Bless the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.)

  • stefanie becker

    I’m enjoying in my late 50′s now getting phone calls from my 31 year-old daughter when she’s had one of those “Oh My goodness, I’m my mother” moments.  It’s redeeming, guess I wasn’t so bad after all.

  • Brianne Fokine

    Like ma

  • AC

    what if you aren’t turning into either or your parents? is that bad or something?

    • 1Brett1

      That’s a good thing on many levels. Yes, we are products of our environment, and we are shaped in our formative years (and by those around us, presumably, in many respects, our parents), but that is NOT an absolute. We continue to grow in certain ways all through our lives and are influenced by all sorts of people ALL of our lives…we also come up with a few things all on our own, irrespective (and sometimes as a reaction to) of what we see around us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.e.julius Charles Eldon Julius

    I’ve had the opposite problem.  I come from a long line of men that had sons late in life.  My father, grandfather, and great-grand father were ordinary men that did extraordinary things in their life.  I’m waiting for it to happen to me.  I can only wish I’d turn into my father.

    • sickofthechit

      Do you really think they waited for it to happen to them?
      Charles A. Bowsher

  • http://www.facebook.com/JPspaceprty Henry Stanley

    When does this happen?! how do we prevent it? I’ve spent the last 7 years ridding myself of their idiosyncrasies and at 25 I can’t imagine them sprouting back up. Heaven forbid that I ever become my parents.

    • sickofthechit

      I hate to be the one to break this to you, but you are already there.

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      You won’t. Don’t believe the hype.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jaki.reis Jaki Reis

    I am so glad to hear someone else speaking of this with authority.  I discovered this when I was 20 and trying to figure out why I was so different from my older sisters.  I tried to speak with friends then and the theory was denounced, sometimes with strong anger.  So i stopped, but every once in a while I would try it out again on a friend and still, no recognition and usually extremely strong denial.  To me it is so obvious!  But if we think about it, the only way we can learn how to bring up children is to take in, from all of our senses, our role models, our parents or whoever else we are exposed to. Yes?

  • Matthew Martin

    I not only see and hear my parents – I see and hear me in my kids already

  • disqus_b4EKT4sHZK

    I don’t get it.  I’m in my 50′s and nothing like my parents…I’ve been prompted by this show to consider it…politics-nope, religion-nope, temperament nope, lifestyle-nope, and so on down the line.  We don’t read the same stuff, we don’t watch the same stuff, we don’t share any interests.  Honestly, the only thing that we seem to have in common is that we love each other, and we enjoy spending time together when we can.  Go figure.

  • Christopher_J_24

    How about this quote from Barthelme from Manual for Sons…kind of an absurdist, surreal version of the father as spectre….Mad fathers stalk up and down the boulevards, shouting. Avoid them, or embrace them, or tell them your deepest thoughts — it makes no difference, they have deaf ears. If their dress is covered with sewn-on tin cans and their spittle is like a string of red boiled crayfish running head-to-tail down the front of their tin cans, serious impairment of the left brain is present. If, on the other hand, they are simply barking (no tin cans, spittle held securely in the pouch of the cheek), they have been driven to distraction by the intricacies of living with others. Go up to them and, stilling their wooden clappers by putting your left hand between the hinged parts, say you’re sorry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kmonsees Katrina Cavanaugh Monsees

    I feel like listening to music – when you listen to what your folks listen to – that’s more of association. You listen it to bring their memory back.

  • DN

    It occurs to me, while listening, that we turn into our parents when we stop needing to rebel against them. As your parent steps aside, you can be your own person. At times, we chose NOT to do things simply because our parents DID do them. We may love gardening, but avoided it, simply because our mother gardened. When we step away from rebellion, therefore, we ironically may find ourselves free to follow our parents interests– and turning into our parents. Its the strength of our rebellion– and the force of turning it off– that pushes our identity toward our parents.

  • 2Gary2

    this is not news.

  • WRB2

    There is a lot of things to think about on this topic.  While my parents did as good as they could I’ve tried to be a better parent but I wonder.  I’ve been careful not to make the big mistakes my parents make, but I see new ones, some times they have similar results.

    Great break from the important pressures, thanks.  

  • jomuir

     As an adopted person who knows her bio mother, I found that I share many personality traits with her that I didn’t expect. However, I speak exactly like my adoptive family & socially behave like them. There are of course many physical traits I share w/bio mom that I wasn’t really expecting but you know, nature vs nurture & all that….

    I am like both my adoptive & bio mother, in different ways. Don’t be sad!

    • maysie2335

      Thank you for sharing your experience. Families are poignant and complicated, in any case…

  • twenty_niner

    I laugh at myself as I’m constantly telling my kids to eat their vegetables and that there will be no dessert without all of that broccoli being eaten. I’ve officially become my father.


      You’re creating a negative association with the veggies. My seem simple, but the wiser approach is to create a positive one; if you eat your veggies you can have dessert!

  • https://profiles.google.com/103338932298838130329 Chris

    I was also an adopted child. I was and am extremely proud of my [adoptive] parents, especially as I see myself take on their characteristics. I met my birth parents a few years ago, and found that I also have many of their personality traits. As adopted children we truly are the product of 4 individuals; it’s a fascinating privilege.

    • maysie2335

      That’s a wonderful perspective. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ParadiseWace Jim Wace Wallace

    I appreciate the comments made but also would like to give light to the idea that some aspects of “who we are and how we get or got to be that way” comes from our grandparents and there are characteristics that seem to skip a generation.  My daughters remind me more of my parents.  I have never really looked like my parents, but my mom’s father.  Beyond the surface I could name more complex stuff like arrangement of furniture in the home, style of living and handling of money.

  • fauxchef5

    YOU are her parent.  She will definitely have some of your traits and some of her own (possibly her birth mom).  Don’t be sad. Just wait and you will see!

  • http://twitter.com/Gail_Belle Gail Sidney

    I was born and raised in Massachusetts and yet, I speak with my mothers’ southern accent. I spoke with a Southern New England accent while in my adolescent years; but it has slowly faded away as I’ve gotten older. I’ve lived in Virginia for a brief 5 years but, the way I speak now reminds me of how my mother speaks to relatives in Greenville, SC. The phrase “y’all” will creep into my vocabulary, and it will make the record scratch in the company of my RI colleagues and students. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=691573202 Kevin Cameron

    On the darker side, what does this mean for choosing a spouse or life partner? My wife is/was wonderful when I met her at 22, but in recent years (38), especially after having a child of our own, she has grown more and more like her own mother. A prospect we both abhor. She does not want to be to her own daughter like her mother was to her, and I would never have married anyone like her mother, and especially never have had a child if I had thought this was a possibility.

    Just as in our youth we believe that *we* will never become our own parents, I guess we also fail to see that our spouse will become their own parents. Sometimes I wish I had given more heed to the warning signs when I met her mother.

    On the lighter side ;) My atomic bomb, (that I know I can never use) in arguments, would be to say “You are acting just like your mother.”

    On the serious side, her father is great. She hated him until just a few years ago when she realised his good points, and that the problem was her mother. If only she could change her “parent mimicry” to become more like him instead. But then maybe I just think that because *I* am more like him, but then that just opens up the topic of looking for our father/mother in our partner. Maybe a topic for the next show?


    What we need to do is acknowledge our parents for their good and bad qualities; appreciate them for who they are and overstand how we have the ultimate control of who we are, and that we have the free will to make the decision to evolve into the person we want to be.
    I recognize the inherent characteristics I have from my parents and also the ones that I learned through association. For example, my father’s short fuse and my mother’s tendancy to withdraw from confrontation, these are things I have accepted about myself and have worked on to eliminate from my personality.

  • amanda yanez

    My mother had married my father at 19, had myself and my older brother at 20 and 21, bought a wagon style car that broke down all the time, and bought the house i now live in. All of these events happened 20 years ago. Now, I’m married to someone literally EXACTLY like my dad, I’m having children (unplanned) at 20 and 21, a boy first, then a girl, I just bought a mazda protege5 wagon that i now have to fix since the transmission is sticking, and i live in the house that i grew up with raising my children like she raised us. its like i’m re-living her life. but i also have inherited my dads sarcasm, carelessness, and i have also noticed that our artistic style is identical. we’re cartoon artists and we both draw dark pieces. he was gone for a portion of my coming of age but i’m still so much like him. how is this? definitely a phenomena 

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