How much do our parents shape us?

By Caitlin Kelly


Two recent films have me thinking, long and hard, about the effects our parents, and their behaviors and values, exert on us, whether we’re young or adult — American Pastoral, from the book by Philip Roth, and Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen.

One reviewer says Captain Fantastic is “the best movie about parenting I’ve ever seen.”

This Guardian reviewer calls it “strange and wonderful.”

The reviews of American Pastoral aren’t terrific, but I found much in it to think about — a solid citizen, owner of a Newark, NJ glove factory inherited from his father, ends up losing his rebellious daughter to an underground movement devoted to blowing up buildings and sowing social unrest.

It encapsulates the schism of the 1960s between the “squares” and the hippies, between those committed to the way things were and those determined to rend the social fabric edge to edge.

Dakota Fanning plays the daughter, moving from a stuttering teen simmering with suburban rage to a mentally fragile adult. Her father never gives up his search for her, a heart-rending theme for me, who has had many estrangements from my own.

The father in Captain Fantastic is a divisive figure, an authoritarian raising his six children in a teepee in the woods of Oregon, home schooling them and subjecting them to intense physical training. The breathtaking beauty of their surroundings is in contrast to their total social and cultural isolation — I thought, the whole way through it, of Cea Person, whose searing memoir of a similar childhood in the woods of Canada, North of Normal, is unforgettable.

Here’s my blog post about it, including an interview with Cea.

I’m fascinated by these two films for the questions they raise about how much we want to become our parents — or rush to flee their influence.

I never had children, but am always intrigued by how people choose to raise them and to impart their values, whether social, intellectual, creative or religious. I’ve seen a few adults I know work hard to break free of their family, often with painful consequences, and others still in thrall to patterns that make them unhappy but can’t find a way out.

I’m always in awe (yes, and envious) of happy, emotionally close families, the kind where an adult daughter and her mother remain best friends, and Sunday dinners en famille go on for decades.

Not us.

Both of my parents are free spirits, both of whom — not surprisingly — came from wealthy but emotionally difficult families. Neither of them ever talks about their childhood.

My father was raised in Vancouver, his father, (an Irish immigrant from a small town in Co. Donegal), founded and ran a successful trucking company there; my mother, born in New York City, was raised by a wealthy mother from Chicago who had multiple husbands, divorcing the ones who annoyed her most.

Headstrong ‘r us.

My mother, who never attended college but married at 17, lived life on her own terms, whether wearing a sari, (her best friend for decades was East Indian), a different wig for every day of the week or moving us to Mexico when I was 14. That ended badly when she had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve, stranding me and a friend on our own for a few weeks there.

My father, a successful and multiple award-winning filmmaker of features and documentaries, never met a cage he didn’t want to rattle, hard. Both are still alive, long divorced.


My mother and I have no relationship at this point.

Even this late in life, I’m still their child in some ways — stubborn, creative, a world traveler, intellectually curious, with friends ranging in age from the 20s to 80s.

My tastes in art and music and food are both developed and wildly catholic, as theirs are, a gift I appreciate.

Both are smart as hell and super-competitive — family Scrabble games can get a little feral!

My father is ferociously agnostic, my mother for years a devoted Catholic; I occasionally attend Episcopal services. (My husband, a devoted Buddhist, was raised by a strict Baptist minister.)

In other ways, I’m quite different.

My mother has lived in such disparate spots as Lima, Peru, Bath, Roswell, New Mexico and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast; I’ve now lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years, am much less successful professionally and financially than my father was and, in some ways, more disciplined in my choices than either have been.

I’m also a product of my times, my adolescence in the hippie-ish late 1960s and 1970s and my native country, Canada, which remains socially liberal.

Which parent do you most resemble?

Or have you chosen to reject their values?

How much do you wish your children will be (are they?) like you?

15 thoughts on “How much do our parents shape us?

  1. I resemble my parents in a lot of ways (except for looks and professions, of course: I’m a blonde novelist, and they’re brunette rabbis). Personality-wise, I probably take after my mom more, we both like similar TV shows and books, and we have similar styles of humor. Morally, I’m like both my parents, which is a combination of Jewish values and what we feel are common sense values and experiences gained through life. And as much as I hate to admit it, as much as I like to give my dad gray hairs (he’s pretty uptight and worries constantly over decisions I make in life), I have noticed some growing similarities to him, especially in dedication to work and love of relaxing.

      1. Speaking of parenting, one of your blog posts came up in conversation yesterday. My mom, my sister and I were at Meijer grocery-shopping, I was waiting for the former two to get through their lanes, and there’s two people ahead of her, including this one woman.
        At this point a little girl and her father come up to the woman ahead of my mother, apparently the girl’s mother. And this little girl is cute, but she’s big as a whale. And she starts taking candy off the shelves and throwing them into the grocery cart. And the mom says, “This is why I want you to stay home with her. Every time she comes, shopping costs so much!” And she’s still putting candy in the cart!
        And it gets worse! The kid’s putting more candy in the cart, and the mom’s telling her husband (I assume) to stop her daughter, but the father isn’t doing anything. He doesn’t want to do anything. And when they both try to stop the kid, the kid has a meltdown and the father has to run out with the kid. And my mom witnesses this whole exchange, and she’s flabbergasted. Apparently the parents have to buy this kid all the toy and candy every time they bring her, and they never say no or she has conniptions.
        And while she’s telling us this in the car home, all of us are seriously aghast. It reminded me of that blog post you did a couple weeks ago, about parents and their kids, and that one kid at the restaurant whose mother expected you to discipline the boy. Mom was just like, “Seriously? The woman did what?”

      2. What a disaster — and I feel so sorry for that child. Her parents are massively failing her — her sense of safety, in teaching her boundaries, in managing her anger and, most important, destroying her health.

        That must have been really difficult to witness.

      3. You know, Dear Abby recommends that before anyone gets married, they get counseling so that before they take the big leap, they’re on the same page about certain big issues. Perhaps they should also take parenting classes before having kids. Either that, or never breed again.

  2. I love this post for many reasons. I ponder my relationship with my parents, my upbringing, as well as how much both the good and bad elements from childhood influence my parenting. I could fill pages and have bent the ears of multiple therapists on the subject. It’s complex, but the short: they gave me education, appreciation for arts and adventure but were challenged and cut off from their own emotions. With my own kids I strive desperately for a balance between the two, and often feel that I come up short in both camps. Still, I put the emotional connection first and do my best to make that a daily practice. Can’t wait to check out these movie recs, as well as the book. Thank you!

  3. My mother died when I was 22 and my father 20 years ago. I have three much older siblings – 10-15 years older – one of whom passed away last year. We’re not close (although in later years I became close to my sister who passed away), mostly because I am so much younger but also because we are hugely dysfunctional. My mother was likely a narcissist and my father rather distant and uninvolved. They were both WW II veterans (esp my father who was a veteran of both D-Day & Dunkirk) who were each in their own way quite damaged. My mother tried to pass that damage on to her children, although I really don’t think she was aware enough to realise that that’s what she was doing.

    I definitely have some similarities to them but have worked hard to avoid some of their issues, especially the ones around my mother. When my family gets together now (for funerals, unfortunately), I get that I am from a different land – one that’s mostly of my choosing.

    I read Cea’s book – she had quite a difficult, bizarre childhood. It reminded me a lot of Jeannette Walls’s, whom Cea acknowledges at the end of her story. Humans do endure, however. We’re good at that.

    1. Thanks for this. It’s a real challenge to survive/surmount a difficult/deprived childhood and be(come) a healthy person as an adult.

      I’m glad you read Cea’s book….When I recommended seeing Capt. Fantastic to her (we follow one another on Twitter now), I warned her it might be too triggering. It’s difficult enough to watch for someone who did not have that sort of childhood.

      Yes, we do survive/endure, if we’re lucky. 🙂

  4. this is such an interesting post. i’ve thought about this from time to time. i see myself as much more like my father, in his light approach to life, hard work ethic, and lack of pretense. my mother was challenging and difficult at best and i made it a personal crusade not to be like her, though with time and age, i now know that she may have done the best she could with what she had to offer of herself.

  5. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail

  6. I hear I am quietly stubbornness (like my father) and like to think I have a keen interest in the creative arts (like my mother), both of whom were/are career academics and ferociously evangelical christians.

    Given that I consider myself a Christian and remain keen to return to study for a PhD as a precursor to a career in academics once I’ve had my fill with working in industry, I guess its fair to say this apple didn’t fall particularly far from the tree..

    1. It’s interesting how much we keep and how much we choose, sometimes, to discard. I’m very similar to my parents in terms of taste/travel/aesthetics/curiosity, and hope to remain so.

      It can take a while to feel comfortable enough to claim it — or shed it.

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