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The Brood: A sociologist explains how parents and kids 'grow each other up'

Parents teach their kids, but the learning flows the other way around too.
Parents teach their kids, but the learning flows the other way around too.

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Parents raise their kids in all sorts of different ways, but there are certain conventional models around the parent-child relationship that most people tend to cling to.

The big one? That parents teach their children and that it's important, just like the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song says, to "teach your children well."

But sometimes kids instruct their parents too. It's a phenomenon of great interest to Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.

The MacArthur Prize-winning sociologist and educator has a new book out called "Growing Each Other Up: When our Children Become our Teachers."

She joined Take Two's Alex Cohen for a discussion about the lessons that children can teach their parents as they become adults themselves.

Interview highlights:

On the lessons that children teach their parents soon after they're born

A number of researchers, but particularly Berry Brazelton, has looked at mothers with their infants, almost right after they're born. And one of the things that he sees is this kind of dance going on as little infants, who come into the world, not as tabula rasas, not as empty people, but with their own— even that early— temperaments, and personalities, and characteristics and needs. And they help their mother— at least in these videotapes it's mostly mother, but fathers as well— they help them know what it is they need. And you see, almost immediately, parents learning from their little infant babies what it is that they can do to soothe them, to make them smile, to make them relaxed. So very much from the very beginning, we look to our children to help us know how to raise them, how to grow them up.

On the presumption that parents are the ones doing all the teaching in the parent-child relationship

Part of what I was interested in knowing is what happens in that time when our children are beginning to emerge into adulthood... what happens as children and parents are trying to navigate their relationship and negotiate intimacy and closeness against separation and distance, for example. And so there is this sort of presumption that parents are the cultural reinforcers, the guides, the ones who help their children learn values and behaviors, how to become successful, how to grow into independent human beings. But all of us who are parents, and even those of us who have been children, understand that this is a very lively dynamic and that children are our teachers. They become the most important people in our growing up as parents.

On the lessons that children teach their parents as they grow into adults

I found that when people told stories, they told stories about their children teaching them to become witnesses, for example. How to listen to them, how to be attentive, how to recognize how they are growing up and what their needs are. How not to try to fix them, how not to interfere... Another were lessons on intimacy, that as children get older and they need to make their place in their world and they need to separate from their parents, that's often very, very hard for adults, for parents, to manage... and so part of what our children help us learn is how to establish different ways of being intimate with each other, close to one another. And one of the surprising aspects of that is the discovery over time that if we give our young people distance, separation, that that allows space for intimacy to develop, for closeness to develop.

To hear the full interview, click the blue player above.

Excerpted from Growing Each Other Up. Copyright 2016 Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Published by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.