Practice of the Month

Like Mom and Dad Always Would Say

Like Mom and Dad Always Would Say


Research into the way family systems operate has demonstrated how extensively our families of origin—and the generations that preceded them–imprint us with automatic patterns that influence (some even say “determine” rather than “influence”) our functioning on a daily basis. Some neuroscientists have gone so far as to assert that up to 90 percent or more of our daily behaviors are governed by evolutionary patterns (instincts) and early childhood socialization. Long before we can become consciously aware of these influences, our families have ingrained deeply within us certain ways of looking at life, unspoken rules of behavior, and attitudes toward relationships.


Some of these unconscious patterns we inherit from our families are helpful and invaluable resources for healthy living and success in relationships, career, and even financial acumen. But others are threats to our wellbeing, our happiness, and our relationships. One way to recognize this emotional baggage that we carry hidden deep within us is to think of some of the familial “folk wisdom” handed down to us in the form of sayings or maxims. These are automatic, internalized responses intended to help us cope with and move beyond difficult situations. Here are a few examples:

  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
  • It’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • Better late than never.

Each of these pithy sayings suggests a way of being in the world that offers a way forward which, upon close consideration, may or may not be helpful or even true. Spend some time making a list of the sayings that you heard growing up or that resonate with the outlook on life that characterized members of your immediate and extended family. Then consider their usefulness, the value of living according to the logic they embody, and even whether or not there is any real truth to them.

Try It:

During the next few weeks, try to catch yourself thinking about, speaking in a way that gives voice to one of these maxims, or acting based on the “wisdom” they impart. You may be surprised at how often these unconscious truths that guide you are better left behind. Keeping a log or journal of how you would like to re-write some of them could be a creative and energizing way of becoming a more thoughtful, more deliberate, better differentiated person.