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Why our parents still have power over us

By Anderson Cooper

Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°," which airs weeknights at 10 p.m. ET. He also is a regular contributor for Details Magazine. This article was published in the October 2004 issue.

Anderson Cooper


Anderson Cooper

The thing I hated about being a kid, besides the bell-bottoms and night retainer, was not having any power.

Sure, I could throw a tantrum, maybe get my way now and then, but in terms of controlling what happened to me, the big-picture stuff, it was out of my little hands.

Most kids may not care about being powerless, but I always did.

It's not that I played Monopoly wanting to own Boardwalk and Park Place, but I at least wanted to be able to roll the dice.

I was 10 when my dad died, and about a year later I decided it was time to take control.

I wanted to be independent, and I needed money of my own for that.

I decided to get a job. Kind of odd for a child, I know, but I was nothing if not odd.

Child-labor laws posed a problem, of course, but then I found the one industry where youth is an asset.

I became a model.

I know it's cheesy, embarrassing, pathetic, but look, I wanted to earn money, and $75 an hour was nothing to sneeze at.

I signed up with the Ford Modeling Agency.

For a couple of years, every day after school, I'd call Ford's children's division and talk to the booker, asking her what "go-sees," or auditions, I had that afternoon.

By the time I was 12, I was regularly working for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Macy's.

All right, so maybe working is a bit of an exaggeration. I was paid to put on clothes and get my photo taken.

Not exactly brain surgery.

On jobs, most of the other kids were accompanied by their mothers, pushy women who sat on their children like hens. Me, I went alone.

My mom worked, and the idea of asking her to accompany me seemed to defeat the whole purpose of having my own job.

I worked until I was about 13. That's when a photographer made me a proposition.

Well, actually, I guess propositioned me is the more accurate term.

He called me up one night after a photo shoot and asked me if I wanted to make $2,500.

I was a little confused, since photographers usually have to make deals through the modeling agency. I wasn't even sure how he got my home phone number.

He said he worked for some people, and when they came into town he arranged "meetings" for them. I still wasn't picking up on what he meant.

"All you have to do," he finally said, "is go to this guy's hotel room. Open a bottle of wine, have some cheese . . ."

Suddenly I got it. I hung up the phone and never told anyone about it. Not my mom, not the modeling agency, no one.

I should have, but I didn't. I quit the job soon after. I was 13. I may have had some money in the bank, but it didn't make me feel any more powerful.

I guess I always thought that when I finally became an adult, when I could make all my own choices, those feelings of powerlessness would disappear. But the truth is, they don't.

As an adult you can make your own decisions, you can eat what you want, stay up as late as you want, wear the same underwear for days at a time, but you will always be beholden to someone or something, in particular your parents.

No matter how old, or rich, or successful you become, your parents will always have some degree of power over you.

You may not see them, they may be old and frail, they may even have died, but their power persists.

It's a cliché, of course, to complain that your parents can make you feel like a kid even when you are fully grown, but the older I get the more I realize that all clichés are true.

Don't believe me? Here's an easy test of your parents' power over you. Pick up the phone and call them.

How long does it take for your mom or dad to make you yearn to get off the phone?

My friend Andrew has the record. He says it only takes his mom three words to piss him off. And you figure one of those has to be "Hi."

I have another friend with a demanding job who's greatly admired in his field. He told me a few weeks ago that his father still doesn't "get" what he does for a living.

"He has this magnificent gift," he says, "to reduce my greatest accomplishments to lucky breaks."

Another friend of mine says he can't stand his mother's unconditional praise.

"She has never once pushed me to do better," he says. "The thing is, why do I care?"

Why indeed?

I doubt there are any scientific studies proving this, but it seems pretty clear that parental power takes many forms.

Some parents offer too much love, others too little.

I know one 26-year-old woman who flies into a rage whenever her mother makes a passing comment about the jeans she likes to wear.

Then there's the thirty-something executive I know who still lets his mother dress him.

Some parents use money to exert control; others are more old-fashioned and rely purely on guilt.

My mom and I have gotten along remarkably well over the years.

She is the opposite of overbearing and intrusive. She rarely calls me, thereby forcing me to call her. Classic Sun Tzu.

And then, of course, there is the magical power our parents have when it comes time to present a potential spouse. Show me one master of the universe who isn't reduced to a quivering mass of gelatin when it's time to meet the parents.

Hasn't Ben Stiller built an entire career around this?

But the greatest parental power may be their inexorable ability to keep us coming back for more.

How many people do you know who quit their parents? Sure, we all fantasize about it, but who actually does it?

The nature of this power mutates over the years, like a radiological agent.

Parental power breaks down, it's got a half-life, but it always survives. Its more obvious, mundane aspects weaken over time.

When you're 5, your mom can sit on you in the aisle of a Toys "R" Us if you are having a fit. When you're 25, she's got to be more manipulative. When you're 50, she's going to be Livia Soprano.

The thing you have to accept is that your parents' power over you will not go away.

The best thing you can do is quit complaining about it. No one wants to hear an adult whine about what their folks did to them as a child or what they continue to do to them today.

There are only a few things more pathetic, and frankly, I can't think what they are.

To get power as an adult, real power over yourself and your life, you first have to accept that you will never have complete power.

It may sound like some 12-step Deepak/Oprah platitude, but it's true. Once you identify the power your parents still hold over you, once you name it, you'll find yourself be-coming more powerful.

My friend Michael insists that "everything you can't stand about your parents at 14 winds up being what you most admire about them by age 40."

I think that's true, but it happens only if you're able to see yourself and them in perspective.

So what if your parents still have power over you? So what if they still make you feel like a kid?

Get over it: That power is entirely in your hands.

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