Ties that bind

Sunday, July 7, 2002

Bond between child and parents runs deep, effects are lasting

By Martha Irvine ~ The Associated PressRICHMOND, Ind.

e is gone -- torn from her life by cancer when she was 15 years old. Seven years later, Connelly Stokes-Prindle still finds herself longing for her father's advice.

Would he like her boyfriend? What would he say about her decision to take a break from college?

"I wonder every day what he'd think of my life now," she says.

The strength of the bond, even beyond death, startles her a bit, as does the approval she still seeks from her mother, who lives 800 miles away.

But that tug -- that craving for a parent's approval, even an absent one -- is universal.

Child and family experts see it in their research. Teachers deal with its effects every day in their classrooms. Therapists work through it with their patients, often well into adulthood.

It's that lingering pull that gets to Stokes-Prindle. At age 22, she is independent and, by her own estimation, "a grown-up."

She has a steady income and has worked a few jobs -- from substitute teacher to temporary jobs coordinator -- since leaving her religion studies at nearby Earlham College. She drives her own aging but trusty Honda Civic. She pays her bills and shares the rent on a weathered, clapboard house, tucked away in a small college and farming town, roughly midway between Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio.

And still, when it comes to her mother, "It's impossible to make a choice and not worry about whether she'll approve or not."

As maddening as that can be, experts say that even in adulthood the bond between a child and parent reaches to the core of who we are, molds our sense of self and, at its best, gives us a place to belong.

Experts also point to countless studies that show quality child-rearing -- developmental psychologist Peter Scales calls it a combination of "warmth, firmness and democracy" -- is closely related to everything from school readiness to better mental health.

"Parents who smoke tend to have kids who do, too. Parents who volunteer a lot tend to have kids who become volunteers," says Scales, who has compiled results from scores of studies in his work as a senior fellow at the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based youth research center.

"No other sources of socialization come close to parents in the breadth and depth of their potential effects on children, both positive and negative."

Indeed, many call the relationship with a parent or parent figure -- grandparents, stepparents or any adult who steps in as the main caregiver -- the most important relationship in a child's life.

"What seems to be important is having someone there for you, someone who is just for you -- 100 percent," says James Garbarino, a professor of human development at Cornell University.

For Stokes-Prindle, those someones were the two people who combined lives and last names to create hers.

Geoffrey Stokes, her father, was a gregarious, bushy-bearded man who wrote for the Village Voice and The Boston Globe newspapers, among other publications. He died in 1995, about a year after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Her mother Janice Prindle, a quiet woman -- also a writer -- teaches high school and lives in Woodstock, Vt., where the family moved when Stokes-Prindle was 7.

The imprint each left on their eldest of two daughters is obvious.

It can be seen in the almond-shaped, brown eyes that are like her mother's and the dry wit she shared with her father. It's also plain that she comes from a literary family: Stacks of books tell of the "addiction for the printed word" her parents instilled in her.

"It really does help paint a picture of who I am and where I came from," she says. "Who my parents were shaped who I am to such an extent that it's hard to separate who I would've been without them."

Many other young people agree with those thoughts, whether the relationship with their parents is good or bad.

Talking about his parents, 16-year-old Chito Trinidad of Chicago says: "If they didn't care about how I was doing, I wouldn't probably care if I succeeded in life."

Millie Thomas, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Texas, says she's "had friends whose parents have disowned them because of people they date or decisions they make in their lives. It's very sad, and it just seems like both the parent and the child suffer."

Psychologist John Mayer says problems with mom and dad almost always eventually surface in therapy sessions with the many troubled teens who pass through the doors of his Chicago office.

They include the "handsome, all-American kid" dealing with attacks of rage and a group of anorexic girls who meet for mutual support. There's also the teen who, after three months free of crack, sat down with Mayer and sheepishly admitted to a weekend binge.

"For well over 90 percent, parents are the main issue," Mayer says. "Did the parents cause it? Not necessarily. But either way, they can help them get out of it. They are my agents of change."

When children do well, parents often get the credit -- even from their children.

"I know I will be a better parent one day because I see how vital my parents have been in my own development," says 21-year-old Dana Hork, who just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was student body president. "As I've grown older, I realize family is the one thing you can always count on."

But when something goes wrong, parents are frequently the first to be blamed and, increasingly, are being made to take responsibility for their children's actions.

In states such as California, judges have gone so far as ordering parents to attend classes with their school-skipping children. In Connecticut, police accused a mother of failing to get her 12-year-old son the counseling he needed before he hanged himself. And in more extreme cases, including the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, parents have settled million-dollar lawsuits intended to hold them accountable for their children's actions.

The spotlight on the parents of John Walker Lindh -- the American Taliban -- became so intense that even first lady Laura Bush expressed sympathy for them.

"Most of these cases have that undercurrent -- 'Who's paying attention to these kids? Why don't you know what they're doing?"' says Mayer, the Chicago psychologist. He's also served as a consultant to the FBI and police in several high-profile cases involving troubled teens.

But while it might be easy to point fingers, experts say we shouldn't.

"You look at some of these cases and think, 'But for the grace of God go I,"' says Robert Billingham, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University.

Janice Prindle still worries about the time she wasn't able to spend with her two daughters after her husband died. They were still in school -- and Cecily, her youngest, was only 11. But Prindle had no choice but to return to work full-time to support them.

Then her own father fell ill with Alzheimer's disease and eventually died.

"At a time when my children were most needy I was less available, physically and emotionally stressed more than they had ever known me to be, and I know this deepened their feelings of loss -- and mine," Prindle says. "I still feel terrible about this."

Garbarino says the feeling is often much the same for parents whose child commits a heinous crime, despite their best efforts to get help for that son or daughter.

The professor traveled from Cornell to Colorado to interview the parents of teen Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, and found the experience "very humbling."

"If everybody's family was put under a microscope everybody could be found guilty of doing something that would be scrutinized," says Garbarino, who wrote about the interviews in his book "Parents Under Siege." "I don't think many families would pass."

To further complicate matters, experts also say it's not always as easy as simply looking at how children are being raised to predict how they'll fare in life.

"Some kids seem remarkably resilient," says Nadine Kaslow, a professor and chief psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Emory University and Grady Hospital in Atlanta. "And then there are families where the kid got good parenting and things don't turn out so well."

There are ways to strengthen the parent-child bond. Communicating -- really talking and knowing what's going on in each other's lives -- is key, experts say.

Garbarino says children and even teens are more likely to open up in a "you-can-tell-me-anything" relationship -- something Janice Prindle says helped maintain strong ties with her daughters after her husband's death.

"I think intimacy, deep bonding, is probably more of a result of how you communicate day by day over a long period of time, which in turn shapes how you share the powerful experiences that come your way," Prindle says.

Still, Garbarino concedes that it's often difficult for parents to maintain that kind of relationship.

Kids "get very good at presenting one front and persona at home and another one outside," he says.

Asked if it was possible for Klebold's parents not to know what he and fellow shooter Eric Harris were planning at Columbine, 90 percent of young people surveyed for Garbarino's book said "yes."

Even when it comes to much smaller secrets, some young people admit they hide things from their parents, in large part because they feel judged.

"The way we act with our friends is often who we really are," says Jessica Rosal, another 16-year-old Chicagoan. "But we're scared to show our parents this side of us because they might think we're not acting appropriately."

Stokes-Prindle understands that feeling.

As a young teen, she didn't always want to share things with her mother, whom she often saw as the disciplinarian of the family. Then her father died.

"I started to see my mom as an adult, as a woman, and not just my mom," says Stokes-Prindle, who understands that even more, now that she is an adult making her way in the world.

Later this summer, she will begin a job with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Richmond and hopes to earn enough money to return to college in the fall of 2003. Eventually, she'd like to work as a counselor or social worker.

She's also learning, slowly, to let go of fear of judgment from her mother.

"There's a balance," Stokes-Prindle says, "somewhere between our parents' complete involvement in our lives and complete separation from our lives that I think most people in their 20s would love to find."

Her mother says she wishes her daughter wouldn't fret so much. But she also understands, remembering how she, too, basked in her own mother's positive comments.

Says Prindle: "I guess we never outgrow wanting our parents' approval."

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