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My Parents Always Correct Me, But Are They Always Correct?

Dear Joseph,

My parents correct me often. The way they do it is very blunt. When they do, I feel unsafe. I have tried over and over to explain this to them, but they just tell me it’s my problem because I’m prideful. They believe they never do anything wrong. They say I don’t take responsibility. And yet when I try to explain why things happened, they don’t listen. It makes me feel small. What am I doing wrong? How do I fix this?

Small World

Dear Small World,

I am going to make a couple of assumptions in my response. I apologize if they are wrong. My goal is to be as helpful as possible to you, and if I am too general, I believe I will be less useful.

First, I am going to assume you are an adult. I will make that assumption because a) you subscribe to a newsletter like this; and b) you are quite articulate about the dynamic between you and your parents.

Second, I am going to assume you are living independently and taking responsibility for your livelihood. If not, my advice will be simple: become as independent as you can as soon as you can. This won’t get better until you do. If it requires reduced circumstances, or harder work, you must decide whether your emotional health is too high a price to pay for whatever financial subsidy you’re receiving. Of course, there may be circumstances I don’t know about that make this completely impossible. If so, regrettably, you will have to adapt my advice to those circumstances.

If my assumptions are correct, then my advice is straightforward: you first need to have a conversation with yourself. Then you need to have one with them.

First, you must get clear on communication boundaries you want in your relationship with them. You say that your parents make you “feel small.” The truth is, they don’t. You are making yourself feel small by acting small. You will feel “big” when you act big. Big means that you get to decide how you will and won’t be treated. For example, you might decide, “I want my parents to ask my permission before offering correction. And I will not listen to their feedback unless they are willing to also listen to mine.” Then, when people cross those boundaries, you get to decide to distance yourself from them so you can take care of your own needs. As Gandhi once said, “No one can hurt me without my permission.”

Second, you need to have a crucial conversation with your parents. First, you need to let them know the boundary you are setting. You are not asking for their permission to set the boundary—this is something “big” you do. The way you build a sense of self-respect is by setting and holding boundaries for yourself. The more you do it, the more you affirm yourself as someone worth taking care of. After you communicate your boundary, ask if they are willing to honor it. Perhaps they won’t. If so, you have a decision to make. Would you rather have contact with them or with yourself? When you fail to hold boundaries, you surrender yourself.

Having set the boundary, if they begin to correct you, interrupt them. Calmly remind them of the boundary, “Mom/Dad, I asked that you not offer correction without first asking. Would you please stop?” If they don’t honor the boundary, let them know what you will do to take care of yourself. For example, “I have asked you not to give me feedback without first asking. You have repeatedly ignored that request. I am going to spend less time with you until you are willing to honor your commitment.”

I suspect that it will feel terribly uncomfortable to do these things at first. And I can assure you it is the right kind of discomfort for you to feel. It may feel rude, disrespectful, or terrifying. But it isn’t. It may result in a torrent of criticism from them in the early stages as they are used to treating you as a child rather than as an adult. Their torrent will simply be their way of trying to maintain the status quo. If you don’t like the status quo, be willing to hang in there until the new boundaries get demilitarized. Be willing to cut yourself off from the emotional responsibility they have been taking for you so you can learn to accept it for yourself.

Best wishes,

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5 thoughts on “My Parents Always Correct Me, But Are They Always Correct?”

  1. sandrashill

    I think the advice you gave here is very sound advice all around. I also think that sometimes some parents (or grandparents) can have a particularly hard time adjusting to seeing the kid/grandkid the same way they would see another adult of the same age. So, while setting and keeping boundaries, like you describe, is certainly one very valid way of dealing with it, I think, sometimes, another approach is for the kid to be the adult about it. What do I mean by that? Let me illustrate with a little real-life story from when I was a kid….

    When I was growing up, my parents were generally more relaxed with how they dealt with me than my grandma was…she was always “making” me do stuff — stuff I knew my parents wouldn’t have made me do.

    One time, when I was visiting my grandma, my aunt (who was my dad’s much younger sister) was home from college visiting while I was there. I wanted to go out for a walk and my grandma was making a big fuss that I had to put on a sweater (even though I knew I didn’t need one). My aunt went out on the walk with me and taught me something very valuable…. She said, “In the future, just put on the sweater and then, once you’re past the house, just take it off.” She knew I was a responsible kid, and she trusted me to know when I did or didn’t need a sweater, and she also knew that her mother could be unreasonable and that I knew the difference between behavior like that and “real” lying. My aunt was actually a fairly meek and obedient person by nature, but what she had learned, and what she taught me, was that sometimes it’s just not worth the fight.

    When I was an elementary school teacher, I also learned from a colleague how to use the phrase, “Thank you for sharing.” It doesn’t mean that you’re going to do whatever it is the person is saying you should do, but it acknowledges that you’ve heard their “pearl of wisdom.” so perhaps Small World could sometimes just say, “Thank you for sharing,” and then just go on to do whatever he/she/they feel is best, rather than getting sucked into creating a bunch of drama around the situation. (Of course this only works if they master the first part of what you said about not letting their parents’ words make them feel small and perhaps not for truly major issues, like whom they should marry or something.)

  2. Jacalyn Miller-Williams

    I am a Canadian who’s lived in the Caribbean for a couple of years now. A few years back, I may have agreed with the advice in the article above; however, now it seems a very self-absorbed, immature and “Ugly North American” way to deal with things! Here, family love and loyalty comes first; and parents giving their kids (young or old) advice, is just a part of the package. Elders are greatly respected just because of their age (and presumed wisdom) – there’s no youth culture here! It’s been refreshing to see and experience it. But when we returned home for a funeral recently, my own grown children would only talk to me if they needed money. (That’s their “boundary”). As a culture, I feel sad for what we have come to!

  3. Fakhruddin

    While thanking for the article. I believe the advice given is not applicable to all regions and cultures. In Asia we do not create boundaries with our parents. We don’t get distance from them just because we disagree in the way they give feedback. In our cultures, parents do not require to ask permission before giving advice or feedback. To counter you argument, let me give a good example, when we are young (before our teen age) the way we respond to our parents, the way we do things may not always be correct and as parents they tolerate us for our immaturity and lack of experience. When the parents grow older, they also decline physically and mentally (not all but majority does), will it be appropriate then for us to distant ourselves from them just because the way they respond, react, disagree or give feedback? I don’t believe so. This is the time to be tolerant, be respectful and sometimes be silent (specially when you don’t agree). It does not stop anyone from making a rational decision, but it is not appropriate to treat and speak to our parents the way we do in our professional life with our colleagues.

  4. Laurie

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on this matter and those who responded and shared alternative perspectives on the wisdom of honouring our parents and elders.
    I would like to consider the first point on ownership of feelings and how you summed up with “Gandhi once said, “No one can hurt me without my permission.” This ambiguous statement is simply ambiguous at best and a delightful quip deception at worst.
    The fruitlessness of Gandhi’s statement is evident in today’s world when we watch the news or hear the context behind a friend’s wounded heart. Perhaps because we no longer hear the sentences before and after and are unfamilar with the context, we repeat these altruistic sounding quotes and add more injury upon the injured. Without context, it is trite. We sound lofty. We sound rather than listen. We miss the fullness of the situation and the complexity of the human heart.
    This quote is so overused. It is a denial of the realities of genocide, infanticide, and acts of war as well as the repercussions of bullying, intentional malicious acts, and abusive family dynamics may very well be parallel acts to the voices that injure the soul. Reality is denied in Gandhi’s flighty statement and that is based upon knowledge of the context of that original statement.
    The writer’s boundaries are compromised and they facing some repairs or gate modification to maintain a healthy relationship. Townsend and Cloud’s books on this are worth offering to the audience.
    The response of owning one’s feeling so that no other makes one feel a certain way requires the realization of the socialization that occurs in the family dynamics of the very home that the produced the scenario here. It may be more fruitful to acknowledge this detachment of feelings is part of maturation that did not occur in the socialization of this child.

    The apron strings need only untied not cut.

  5. Jeanne

    Joseph thank you this is excellent advice. I have used the same approach for years with friends, family, employees, and co-workers. Having it now in ‘writing’ from you will be easy to just share as an encouragement that they are not alone.

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