What is it that makes perfectly reasonable adults start to act like teenagers as soon as they hit their parents’ front door?
You know how it goes: The oldest starts acting bossy. The kid who never helped with the chores still heads for the TV instead of the kitchen or yard where others are helping out. The guy who now runs a substantial business goes back to being the family screw-up.
Meanwhile, the parents oblige by being more parental than they would dream of being with other young adults in their lives: more critical, giving more advice than is appreciated, issuing orders to clean up their language or pick up the coat they dropped on the floor, and treating their adult kids like, well, kids.
Old patterns of behaving die hard. As a high school basketball coach I know frequently tells his players, “Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. It makes permanent.”
Think about it. The family is our first experience with the social world. Each kid who comes into the family reacts to those who came before, looking for a way to be unique but also to be part of the group. One kid becomes the “smart one” or the “smart one in math” while the other becomes the “smart one in history.” One becomes the athlete, another gets known to be the funniest, or the best or worst with money or the best or worst at organizing. For each family member, finding a unique identity means strengthening particular attributes and talents.
At the same time, belonging requires some level of conformity to our family’s idea of the family identity, at least some of the time. In the normal shuffle and scuffle of daily life, we learn what wins acceptance from our family and what will get us put in the timeout chair or sent to our room; what ensures our membership in the family and what will risk rejection. For almost 20 years, we spend some part of almost every day as one of the dancers in the elaborate dance of family life. Our roles become as choreographed and familiar as the opening number of a well-known show. Twenty years. That’s a whole lot of practice for making the family style and our role in it permanent.
Our roles may be modified considerably when we move out into the larger world. But get us together with the original group and 20 years of practice bubbles back up to the surface. Never underestimate the seductive draw of what is familiar. It just feels natural to snap back into our well-rehearsed part. The “responsible one” volunteers for more than she really wants to do. The “baby” goes back to playing the cute card in spite of herself. When with her dad, the independent woman can slip once again into the “princess” role she had as a child while her brother starts to swagger a bit like his former teenage jock self.
As we grow to adulthood, we expand our repertoire of skills for interacting with others. Feedback from friends, classmates, and colleagues shape us in new and important ways that may not work as well in the family. It’s normal and okay to regress a bit when in the bosom of family but it’s important to hold onto the adult we’ve become as well. Being mature means catching ourselves when we start to slide into old roles that are self-centered or over-stated or less balanced and actively deciding to relate in the family with the same dignity and maturity we use with others.