Tag Archives: parents

Why have my parents gotten wiser as I have gotten older?

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” - Attributed (probably spuriously) to Mark Twain

The usual explanation for this is that teenagers are too foolish to understand the advice of their elders. But there’s another obvious explanation: their parents accumulate life experience that makes them wiser over those seven years.

Not all experience is created equal, and the rearing of a child all the way to adulthood is likely a substantial source of new wisdom and experience that are difficult to acquire in other ways beforehand.

When I was a child, I felt like my grandfather had a lot more perspective to offer than my father had. Some of this might just have been a different context for our interactions; most of my interactions with my dad were about day-to-day stuff. But some of this might have been that my grandfather actually had more experience.

As I talk with my dad now, it seems more and more clear that he has some sorts of wisdom and perspective I wasn’t aware of earlier. For instance, it seems like he’s more aware than before that when you have a child, you’re not buying into some set lifestyle, but instead you’re buying a chance at a highly uncertain set of outcomes. This makes me more relaxed about talking with him, because it feels more like if I do things he doesn’t agree with, he knew this was part of the deal in advance.

My mom has also talked about acquiring wisdom that she didn’t have before, in ways that have made conversations with her go better. For instance, I think we’ve both recently learned a lot about setting boundaries.

If this hypothesis is true, then the natural thing to do is to tell kids, not to listen to their parents more, but to listen to people of their grandparents’ generation more, to the extent that they’re available. It also seems like I should prioritize making more friends who are at least a few decades older than I am.

To the extent that this hypothesis is true, we should expect the last child in a long series to report this effect less than firstborns. So, my questions for you are:

  1. How many years between your parents’ firstborn and your birth? (0 if you were a firstborn.)
  2. How true does Twain’s observation seem for you, that parents seem to get wiser over time?


I didn’t really have good role models for boundaries, and didn’t hear them talked about much as a kid, so when I first heard people talking about them, I tried to fit them into my existing categories. But that didn’t work very well, so they felt like nonsense.

It looked like when people were expressing boundaries, they were drawing on nothing but their own preferences to determine them - so maybe boundaries were a kind of strong preference? But people seemed to use some sort of moralistic language around boundaries. People who “violated boundaries” weren’t just costly to interact with, but behaving wrongly, viewed as dangerous, to be excluded from one’s life. Then maybe boundaries were like absolute standards of right and wrong? But that didn’t work either, since they were determined so subjectively. Continue reading

Steve Jobs and the Impossibility of Parents

Steve Jobs felt abandoned by his parents - but which ones?

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs repeatedly brings up Jobs’s sense that his birth parents abandoned him by putting him up for adoption, as an explanation for his bad behavior towards others: setting people up to believe they’re close friends or even revered mentors and father figures to him, only to suddenly and coldly abandon them when their usefulness to him has ended.

This explanation - that the central trauma of Jobs’s life was a sense of abandonment by his birth parents - doesn’t quite fit. Other of Job’s famously bad behaviors are is not explained by this: the quickness with which he would categorize people into “geniuses” and “bozos,” or their accomplishments into “amazing” or “shit,” and the fury with which he would berate those in the second half of the division. In addition, Jobs was adamant that his adoptive parents always made him feel special, making a point to tell him that they had picked him out, chosen him.

One passage from early in the book stuck out to me, and I think it helps resolve this puzzle. Jobs told Isaacson a story about how, when he was a kid and becoming interested in technology, a friend showed him something his father - who had been teaching him how to make things, about electronics, etc. - wasn’t able to account for. A big part of Jobs’s relationship with his father had been his father teaching him how to make things, and how things worked. In that moment, Jobs says, he began to realize that he was smarter than his parents, and as soon as he noticed this thought, felt a deep sense of shame. Anyone who knows anything about the character of Steve Jobs will be unsurprised to find out that shame was an emotion he rarely experienced. I don’t have a copy of the book handy, but would be unsurprised if this is the only time the word shame is used to describe Jobs’s state.

The central trauma of Steve Jobs’s life was that he felt abandoned by his adoptive parents, when he realized that they were not as smart as him. His father couldn’t be his mentor anymore. No one was above him. Continue reading