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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 2

How to Be a Better Son or Daughter

Tips to encourage gratitude and banish grouchiness



ALISON SEIFER

About a year ago I got a new laptop for work and gave my old Macintosh iBook to my mom. She'd been itching for a way to check Facebook and e-mail from the couch and had always wanted a Mac, so she was thrilled. That is, until my ham-fisted lessons on the operating system started up. “No, Mom, you don't need to double-click on hyperlinks anymore…” “Apple-Q is quit, Mom. No, hit Apple and Q at the sametime.” Eventually she asked my more patient, less irritable husband to be her tech guru because, well, I was being a grouch. That wasn't my finest moment as a daughter, and it made me think: What can I do to be a better, more grateful child to this woman who dedicated so much of her life to me? Here is what sociology and psychology research has to say on the matter:

#1 Have a happy life.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin asked 600 middle-aged parents to list their children's major life problems, such as job losses or car accidents, and their successes, such as having a happy marriage or family of their own. They found that having multiple successful adult children predicted better well-being for the parents—whereas having just one kid with serious problems dragged down Mom and Dad's emotional health. “Parents are more invested in their adult kids than the reverse; this is something we find in every study we do,” says lead author Karen Fingerman. To mitigate the blowback on your parents when something bad does happen to you, try to “recognize that they are empathizing with you and are often concerned, sometimes even more concerned about what's going on in your life than you are. Sometimes you may have to reassure your parents,” she says, suggesting adult children can make sure to give their parents positive updates every so often—it's all too easy to call them only to complain.

#2 Accept help.
In another study, Fingerman and her colleagues investigated how older parents who give a lot of help to their grown children affect the happiness of everyone involved. “We started out assuming that it would be a bad thing” for the parents, she says, but the researchers found that helping out grown children financially, emotionally or in practical ways such as with child care, even several times a week, did not generally have an adverse effect on parents' happiness. It may even improve their well-being, Fingerman says, if their help allows their child to live a happier and more successful life.

#3 Don't tell them what to do.
One of the biggest mistakes that grown children tend to make is trying to parent their parents, says Howard Gleckman, author of Caring for Our Parents (St. Martin's Press, 2009) and resident fellow at the Urban Institute, a social policy research firm in Washington, D.C. As your parents age and get a little shaky cognitively or physically, “some of what you're going to be doing to help them may in fact be the sort of thing a parent would do for a child,” he says, such as giving them rides or managing their money. “But if you treat them like a child, it's going to go very badly for everyone. It's demeaning, and it takes away that independence and respect that they need emotionally.” Instead keep in mind that just because a parent is starting to need help in one realm does not mean they cannot be independent in many other areas.

#4 Have patience.
Spending so much time reading sociology papers about how parents of grown children feel made me want to go straight to the source and call my mom. When I asked her what the number-one thing my brother, sister and I could do to be better to her she said, without hesitation, “Be patient.” It is just plain frustrating, she says, when adult kids lose their cool because a parent is being stubborn, or slow on the uptake, or flummoxed by technology, or is making us wait while they search for their glasses or keys. “A lot of my friends feel this way and say, ‘My kids are so mean!’ It makes us feel like, ‘Gee, we raised you, we were nice to you, we did all this stuff for you, give us a break!’” Well said, Mom. I won't forget it.

This article was originally published with the title "How to Be a Better Son or Daughter."

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