You Voted for Whom?!

by Mark Sichel, LCSW

More than one parent of a college age child has had the not-so-delightful experience of having said child drop a few bombs on the family while home for winter break. I guess coming home for the holidays seems like a good time to air differences and provoke controversy, because final exams are over and who would want a holiday celebration without a little color and drama anyway? In some families, the shock jock is sporting a purple mohawk and assorted piercings, but in our family the provocateur is wearing Brooks Brothers and carrying the Wall Street Journal.

I imagine it's not easy being the child of two shrinks, particularly liberal, tolerant, non-judgmental, ex-sixties radicals who value uniqueness, diversity, and self-determination above all else. Our children didn't have pressure from their parents to conform like the other kids in their school. Our son came home with a pierced ear in high school, and much to his chagrin, his mother and I admired his new jewelry. When he introduced us to his girlfriend, a beautiful African-American classmate of his, we welcomed her into the family. We were two self-satisfied, ageing professionals, pleased with our liberal and non-judgmental stance regarding our children's lives and lifestyles.

Until this past Election Day, it never occurred to us that we might have nascent wells of judgmental-ism buried deep within. Our son was old enough to vote, and despite his having declared his major in business, and his overall conservative demeanor, his mother and I were floored when he told us he had cast his first ever vote for the much loathed, in our house at least, George "Dubya" Bush. A Republican? One of our kids a Republican? Well, he is and so are MANY of the children of our group of ageing, dyed-in-the-wool liberals.

As psychotherapists and experts in human development, we should have seen this coming. Children need to rebel; teenagers and college-age kids often form their identity based on rebellion against their parents. The tasks of adolescence and young adulthood are all related to identity formation and the process of becoming independent from the parents. Young adults need to differentiate themselves in order to form a stable and firm adult identity, and this process of differentiation often leads to rebellion.

Rebellion to the right, though? How could it happen to us? We could live comfortably with nose rings, green hair, even supporting Ralph Nader and the Green Party, but being a Republican was just too much for us. What was even harder to bear, was realizing that we turned out to be the judgmental parents we never thought we were. If this had been a client in a similar situation, we would have advised them to suspend judgment and focus on the principles of self-determination, which are necessary parts of every child's healthy psychological development. So, daily, we try to take our own advice and respect our son for his growth, strength of character, and ability to form his own convictions, which, ultimately, is all we ever wanted for our children in the first place.

We sit with envy and awe of those parents whose children come home with green hair, body piercings, and tribal scarifications. And, like those parents who reassure themselves that the green hair and piercings are probably just a phase, we soothe ourselves in knowing that luckily, in our Democracy, party loyalty is not a lifetime contract or commitment.

If you would like to learn more about the process of separation and individuation that all healthy children must go through, read The Ties that Bind, the Ties that Strangle.


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