What is going on?
One may well ask whether it is the children who cannot accept any authority from the parent from whom they so recently struggled to gain some independence, or whether, indeed, it is the parents who cannot let go of controlling their child?
Let us examine the dynamics of both possibilities.
One of the major tasks of growing up is growing away from one’s parents. For young people to be able to stand on their own two feet, they must be able to differentiate themselves from their parents. They need to test parental value systems, lifestyles, beliefs and goals in order to see if these fit their own values and styles. They do this by trying out different beliefs, new ways of living and by having friends that their parents disapprove of. We call this adolescent rebellion.
Even though the child may be well beyond the so-called “rebellious years,” remnants of this effort to distance oneself may remain. Even when I was in my mid-70s and my mother was in her mid-90s, I still sometimes startled at the strength of my reactions when she criticized me. This is a parent-child dynamic that lasts a lifetime.
So it is no wonder that a child may resist any parental attempt — no matter how legitimate — to control. It may be a helpful suggestion that is taken as criticism or a mild criticism that is perceived as strong disapproval. The push for autonomy from one’s parents is so strong that any supervision is felt as overly controlling.
Children want to please their parents and care so much for what they think that they exaggerate — in their own minds — any parental reaction that is less than absolutely positive. Every child, from infancy through adulthood, wears a little invisible sign around his or her neck that says, “Mom, Dad, please admire me!”
The other possibility, that indeed the parent is a very difficult boss, should also be explored. As children grow older, it is difficult to see them as adults. I still give unsolicited psychological advice to my 62-year-old daughter who has a Ph.D. in psychology and business advice to my 60-year-old son with an MBA from Harvard.
Parents remember all the foolish things their kids used to say and do and still attribute that potential to their grown sons and daughters. They still believe that their own judgment must be better than their child’s.
Parents do tend to oversupervise their own children. Whereas a mother or father may overlook an employee’s minor errors, they would notice every mistake their son or daughter made and overreact. In other words, the expectations of performance are higher for children, thus placing additional burdens on these children who feel under observation all of the time. If children do well, it’s a chip off the old block. If they don’t, it is perceived as an embarrassing reflection on the parent.
Some parents exaggerate their children’s ach-ievements and give them responsibilities too soon: some parents under-rate their children and continue to keep them in subordinate positions longer than is warranted. Either way, it has little to do with reality. Also, other emp-loyees often believe that boss’ children are unfairly given advantages and may resent it, adding to the problem.
Also, if the child takes a position different from the parent, that parent may feel betrayed. Family loyalty and affection get confused with work decisions.
Parents generally have trouble giving up control, and when it’s time to retire many stay on, becoming burdens to their children — who would normally pension-off aging employees but cannot because it’s mom or dad.
If relationships at work are too fraught with tension, it may be important to the child to prove himself or herself elsewhere, before the parent can accept that child as a valuable member of the team.
There is really only one solution to the problems of parents and children in the same business. It is to talk openly about the one’s need for control and the other’s need for autonomy. There must be constant reassurance about loyalty, commitment and love.
Although these should not be at stake because of a difference of opinion, they often are.
My Mother complains that
I’ve gained weight
my hair isn’t right
my dress is unbecoming
I wasn’t polite
it matters not
that she complains
is that it still matters
— Natasha Josefowitz taught the first course in the U.S. on women in management and is the author of 19 books. She lives at White Sands La Jolla.