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Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers

reviewed by Jale Aldemir - April 05, 2017

coverTitle: Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers
Author(s): Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022618840X, Pages: 296, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

Renowned Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has recently authored Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers. Her book examines “the ways in which the development and learning of parents are shaped in part by their children, focusing on how those lessons are incorporated into the ways that parents view themselves” (p. 8). She assumes an ethnographic role where the interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee are profoundly shaped by the past and present experiences of both parties in relation to their parenting. Through such an approach, the author helps readers build a rapport with each parent interviewed in the volume. This augments the connection between readers’ own lives and those who they read about.

The book’s introduction starts with a call to question many common assumptions about parenting that are deeply rooted in history and culture. They include the idea that parents are experts, knowledge carriers, and socialization agents to their children. Lawrence-Lightfoot urges readers to reverse their perspectives on these assumptions. Instead, they should examine the impact of parent-child relationships on the progression of parents as individuals who keep changing with every one of their experiences in life.

The following four chapters are organized according to an emerging theme. These include witness, growing, intimacy, and acceptance. Each chapter opens with an introduction to its brief thematic content and follows with subtheme titles that correspond with an interviewee’s intimate story. The interview tone gives a sense of being an onlooker who cannot help eavesdropping on the conversation between two people.

Reading through consecutive chapters, I enjoy that Lawrence-Lightfoot prompted me to think about many existential points related to my parenting and living with my children. Procreating and surviving must be instinctual desires for human beings. Otherwise one would ask why humans have been going through the same old struggle of bringing new lives into this world and working toward raising new generations. Such dilemmas accompanied my thoughts as I read the stories of parents that are revealed through the author’s eloquent language.

Lawrence-Lightfoot uses Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory as a framework to hone in on the overall theme of the book. She explains that, “the ways in which children become their parents’ teachers when adolescence transitions into young adulthood, when the developmental expectations are shifting, adulthood looms on the horizon, and the dynamics of authority are being reshaped” (p. 11). Among the seven stages of lifespan Erikson identifies, generativity versus stagnation is the current life journey stage of the interviewees chronicled in this volume. This stage consists of those who are in their middle adulthood ages and are roughly 40- to 65-years-old. They are parents with children who have already left the house by now. At this moment in life, they deeply care and “help shoulder the burden of the children of the world” (Gross, 1987, p. 55) through constant reflection on their past experiences. Erikson (cited in Gross) relates one’s feelings of success during this stage to one’s productivity and sense of accomplishment. It seems that the parents who are profiled in Growing Each Other Up earned advanced educational degrees. They also have achieved successful lucrative careers. This helps them maintain a sense of equilibrium with the stagnation they experienced while dealing with the challenges of raising their children.

This previous point brings me to one facet that makes the content of the volume both very strong and very weak at the same time. As I read through different parental stories, I was captivated by the depth of critical analysis of complex psychological, social, and cultural dynamics that factored into sculpting the dyadic relationship between themselves and their children. For example, in Chapter Two, the person who is profiled is named Jacob. He is “a child psychologist, a clinician and a professor” (p. 48). Jacob attributes his middle son’s ethical activist nature to being raised as the middle child in the family. My fascination with these types of rich reflections left me with an uneasy feeling that grew with each chapter as I began to learn about the parents’ professions (e.g., almost all of the interviewees have earned degrees in their fields except one). I could not help think what would have happened if these parents did not have the benefits of upper income brackets. Due to this status, they were able to afford time and money to have some control over the material factors surrounding the relationships they had with their children. Phrased differently, some of the problems that the interviewees shared are almost too mundane when compared to the circumstances that the majority of families and children must deal with. This includes a lack of financial resources, inadequate access to health resources (e.g., physical health or mental health), a violent home, and a violent neighborhood, etc.

A good illustration of this could be seen in Chapter Three. Eva’s efforts to fully immerse her two daughters into her Greek heritage as a first generation Greek American are described in this chapter. Her daughters wanted to break with the tradition of eating home cooked Greek food for a day and order takeout instead. This issue was a big struggle for Eva who also grew up being immersed in mainstream American culture and similarly refused some of her Greek parents’ ways. Breaking with tradition and ordering takeout appears to be a big deal for Eva. However, this type of struggle is not representative of the majority of the audience for this book, namely people who seek to understand generational struggles in the grand scheme of life events.

The most interesting part of Growing Each Other Up came from Juliana’s adoption story of three highly traumatized siblings from Russia. It also included what she had to endure throughout several years raising three very troublesome children. I believe this story was absolutely true to the subtheme of Chapter Two, namely surviving. It was remarkable to read about this mother’s perseverance to help her children cope with mental instability, chronic violent outbursts, and physical abuse toward her and her husband for so many years. One can feel Juliana’s sense of being betrayed by the international adoption system. Specifically, she was not informed beforehand of the severe trauma these children had lived through earlier. As a result, she had to cope with an extremely challenging struggle to fulfill her dream of being a parent in spite of the extreme difficulties these children brought to their lives. Juliana expresses that she does not love these children, but feels responsible for them despite her negative emotions. Love and a sense of responsibility are two conflicting emotional states that cause this mother to feel like she is stuck in purgatory.

Overall, Lawrence-Lightfoot’s Growing Each Other Up provides important provocations for parents at any age who seek deep reflections on their parenting. It also helps them cope with the ways their children’s experiences impact their family and their growth as individuals. The book could also be a useful resource for graduate level courses examining lifespan theories, social work, and family studies.


Gross, F. L., Jr. (1987). Introducing Erik Erikson: An invitation to his thinking. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 05, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21904, Date Accessed: 9/20/2020 2:43:44 PM

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About the Author
  • Jale Aldemir
    University of North Carolina Wilmington
    E-mail Author
    JALE ALDEMIR is Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at University of North Carolina Wilmington.
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