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?

3 thoughts on “Why have my parents gotten wiser as I have gotten older?

  1. anonymous

    14 years between my parents' firstborn and me. I saw my mom undergo a lot of growth throughout my life. Probably has something to do with the fact that she had a divorce and remarried early in my life, and had a lot of personal growth to do after that (doing higher education). I feel she is still somewhat immature for someone her age.

    My stepdad hasn't grown much; I think I respected him a lot throughout my life. If anything it might be a bit less now, because I think I've grown beyond him in some ways. Same with my dad and my stepmother.

    OTOH with the grandparents I knew, I respected them more over time, but I think that may have been because they didn't like children very much, so we got along better as I got older.

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  2. PDV

    0 years, and it seems dead wrong. My parents seem less wise, less knowledgeable, generally less helpful as resources now, when I am 25, than they did years ago.

    When I was 14, I frequently got angry at my parents for not treating me as an equal or potential equal, and not listening to me when I told them why I thought they should. But when they weren't talking down to me, their advice was helpful and we had interesting conversations. When I was 21, they had stopped talking down to me, so I wasn't angry as often, but still seemed to be giving the same advice as years ago, which had stopped being useful. I also was starting to build up my own worldview, and when I gave reasons for it they mostly fell on deaf ears. Now I am 25, and that trend has accelerated: the advice more and more seems stale, when I get it, and they more and more seem too firmly stuck to their old beliefs and immovable by new information.

    When I was 21 was probably a local maximum in perception of wisdom, though. But that's lack of anger making me able to engage with them more seriously, not any actual increase in wisdom.

    What this view suggests is that engaging with many distinct people significantly older than you just enough to get an hour each of frank conversation and advice is probably about as valuable as cultivating long-term relationships with each of them.

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  3. Meh

    0 and i think i also see the opposite effect. I've noticed over time that some of the nudges I got when i was younger are in fact very much needed, but horribly executed. I don't see the my parents growing very much as people, and over time i only grow more aware of and disillusioned with their stagnant perspective.

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