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Debating a parent's influence

Published April 06. 2013 09:03AM

How much longtime influence does a parent have on the actions of an adult child?

Your answers could vary between "not much" and "more than you think."

When I'm together with friends and new acquaintances, that subject often comes up.

Sometimes, it's because a parent is saying: "We always took our children to church every week but now that they're on their own, they don't go."

Then, nods around the table indicate it's a common problem.

The bottom line is a parent can give a child material possessions but he can't give the child faith. Often, it seems that no matter how faithful the parents have been in sharing their faith with their offspring, once the kids are out on their own, they stop going to church.

Many young adults claim they stopped believing at all.

My friend Peg is one of the most faith-filled women I know. She raised six kids, teaching them about God and taking them to church. But her best example has been in giving service to others.

Of her six adult children, none are believers, or so they say.

My friend just smiles her quiet, contented smile. "Sure they are," she says. "Just wait."

This week, four of the adult children came home to help her pack up her house and move. When they sat down to eat, no one picked up a morsel of food. Instead they looked at Peg and said: "Well, aren't you going to say Grace?"

"Should I?" she tested, knowing how they used to complain when she said grace before every meal.

Of course, came the chorus.

Throughout the weekend, my friend said she kept smiling inside as her kids gave their viewpoints and talked about their lives.

"It was like listening to myself years ago. Without being aware of it, they were echoing some of the things I tried to teach them."

Best of all, they are following in her footsteps in helping others. Even the longtime alienated son, a recovering alcoholic, is dedicating himself to a life of helping others.

"When we went out deep sea fishing on our boat he took his cell phone because he promised a few guys he's helping that he'll always be within reach," she says.

Tonight, I listened to a relative complain that her daughter rejects everything she says. "She wants nothing to do with my opinions or ideas and I don't think I have any influence on her," she complains.

I told her many kids go through the same thing. It's called a rite of passage.

When I was growing up, I didn't know my future but I knew I would be nothing like my mother. After all, we were opposites in everything.

The more the years go by, the more I realize I am more like her than I ever thought I would be, thank God.

When I was young, I never appreciated the stoic way she held us all together through adversity. I never gave her credit for working two jobs in order to raise two children single-handedly.

In fact, I'm ashamed to say, I criticized her for it, saying she was gone from home so much and was never there for me. I claimed I had to raise myself.

I'm surprised at the number of people who tell me similar parent-adult child tales. They were always there for their children but that's not how the young adults remember it.

Children's eyes see everything but they don't assimilate it into their thought process. Not until much, much later.

Did you ever wish you could take words back decades after you said them? There have been plenty of times when I wish I could reach beyond the grave to tell my mother, "You were right. Thank you for teaching me."

I tell my friends who are struggling with adult-child relationships not to get upset. It's all part of the growth process.

When we're confronted with a problem, a family problem or any problem, it's hard to take a long-term view. But when you get older, you realize it's not only the best option. It's your only one.

I interviewed a woman today who told me she never appreciated her mother as fully as she should have while she was alive.

Now, looking back, she says she has been able to become financially secure because of the simple lessons she learned from her mother as she watched her scrape by.

"I never made more than $20,000 a year. Neither did my husband," she claims. But they were able to buy 14 rental properties, she says, by following her mother's example of save, save, save in every way, every day.

I have my mother to thank for the same skills.

Did I ever thank her?

Not unless she's in heaven and can hear me now.

I'll bet my mother never thought she had much influence on me. All I ever told her was how we were so different from each other. Different values. Different goals. Different lifestyle preferences.

Or, so I thought.

There's an old two-sentence story that proclaims the truth of it all: "When I was a child, I thought my parents didn't know anything. When I got older, I wondered how they got so smart."

How much influence does a parent have on offspring?

My answer is twofold: Not as much influence as you would like. But a whale of a lot more than you think you have.

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