George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” Studying many families, workplaces and even nations, we can see the truth of this in the recycling of the faults, mistakes and outright wrongdoing of past generations.

Often I have heard new parents make this commitment: “Now I have kids, I’m not going to make the same mistakes my parents did!” Sadly, in the years that follow, they often go on to do one of two things: either they fall into the same pattern as the parents they disparaged (replicating those “mistakes”) or they create a whole new method of achieving the same negative results (repackaging the faults they so despised). And it’s frustrating and deflating for them.

Replicating behaviour we despised only requires us to follow the pattern we were given, to fail to assess or reflect on our behaviour, to justify it or blame others, and to refrain from seeking new ways of responding to the world. Replicating is easily understood; it refers to Cats in the Cradle situations. (If you’ve never heard that song, Google the lyrics!)

Repackaging the negative behaviour is a lot more subtle. It stems from reacting strongly against the status quo without rejecting its underlying principles.

Political revolutions often generate the same abuses of power, violence and corruption they once opposed because they embrace wielding power as the means of change. And we know the saying about power corrupting…

Imagine a man whose parents pressured him into a predetermined career path – discouraging him from exploring his interest in music. He reacts by bundling his son off to a team sport, an individual sport and music lessons every week, and steering away from an academic focus. While it may look good on paper, this lifestyle of hurry is beginning to prompt resentment from the boy and an emotional distance is developing between them. This man can recognise the symptoms but can’t work out what’s causing them. By his yardstick, he’s nothing like his parents – in actual fact he has simply repackaged their values. Both generations do what they do partly because they want the world to think of them as excellent parents, giving their son the perfect start in life – but they both make the mistake of leaving the child out of the decision-making process.

When you see these sorts of generational cycles appearing in your family life, consider the following ideas as starting points for resolving them:

  • Honour the good in your parents, by uncovering it, dwelling on it, appreciating it. That simple choice may help you replicate and repackage their positive values, actions and examples.
  • Investigate (don’t guess!) the causes of their negative values and behaviours. Understand them rather than judging them.
  • Test yourself to see if you own the same underlying principles (or values) that lead to the “bad behaviour”. Do you also believe in “keeping up with the Joneses” even though you practise it in a different way to your parents? Do you force your children to comply – even though you use your ‘superior intellect’ to gain your kids’ compliance rather than the belt that your father wielded to gain yours?
  • Insert new input. Sometimes by introducing new behaviour or a new thought into your home, you will unravel the poor patterns that have developed. This could be as simple as deciding you will no longer cram parenting, cleaning and home office tasks into the dinner-bedtime period. Also experiment with changes to the environment that remove/reduce the triggers for “bad behaviour” (yours, your spouse’s and your kids’).
  • Research and practise alternative responses to the responses you have employed. Give yourself time and be consistent with making a change before tackling the next one. Allow yourself to fail even as you learn. Seek the support of trustworthy people in the process.
  • If serious or perplexing enough, it may be an opportunity for professional counselling and its benefits.

If there’s any bad news it’s that breaking this pattern requires you to go far below the surface of your life, requiring healing, retraining and change. But the good news is you will start resembling the parent you originally hoped to be. The great news is that you might be the one that finally stops your family flaws from being passed down to a new generation. That has to be worth the effort…