Relationships, You & Your Family

The apple does not fall far from the tree… or does it?

The apple does not fall far from the tree

The proverb, “The apple does not fall far from the tree”, speaks of the idea that we each carry something within us that is from our parents. It could be a physical characteristic (like our eye colour), a food allergy, or a personality trait (like being particular about cleanliness or having a quick temper).

As a family and marital therapist, I have a professional interest in this topic. I want to know which legacies that my clients embody are from their family-of-origin or birth families. I wonder to what extent my client’s tendency to worry is an outcome of parents who are themselves worriers. Or if growing up in a single-parent household is the “cause” of a client’s sensitivity to issues of interpersonal trust and relational insecurity?

I am, however, clear that we cannot as yet find a single cause to every behaviour. No gene has yet been found for one’s temper or anxiety. Yet the probability of an individual developing behavioural characteristics that are observed in other family members is just too high to ignore or assign it as due to chance.

In addition to biological legacies, let us not forget that the way our parents have raised us influences our development. This includes what they have been able to provide for us in our growing years. For example, a child may perform better academically because his parents are able to afford tuition for his weaker subjects. There is also the impact of adverse childhood experiences on a child’s tender years and their adulthood. Adverse experiences may include breakup of the family, economic hardship and traumatic events.

All this may paint a very reductionistic and deterministic view of humans, that indeed, “the apple does not fall far from the tree”. However, we all know of stories of people who beat the odds. People with humble backgrounds who rose to stand head and shoulders above others. Or individuals who led terrible lives for years, even decades, and yet managed to pull themselves out of their quagmire. How did these individuals do it?

I believe change begins with the belief that change is possible. The hope for, and even the expectation of, change are important ingredients to things being different. Some believers may cling to the verse, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). Those who hold different beliefs may have to look at scientific evidence or even personal life stories to nurture this hope.

Yet some Christians may not feel like new creations at all. They may notice that their character weaknesses do not miraculously vanish. Besides considering if these individuals are truly “in Christ”, we may do well to recognise that change is oftentimes a work in progress.

What steps then do we take to live a changed life? Do we recognise features of the old unchanged individual constantly trying to resurface? I sometimes explain it like this. Suppose you had a shoulder injury which requires your dominant arm to be immobilised for a period of time. What may happen is that when we need to open a door or turn on a switch, we may automatically reach out with our dominant arm. It takes conscious effort to remember to use the other “good” one.

A changed life requires recognising the old tendencies and consciously making a habit of doing the opposite. “One day at a time” is a helpful reminder when trying to break old destructive habits like an addiction.

Another help for believers is the legacy our Lord himself left us—the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17), who inspires and empowers us to overcome unhelpful and debilitating earthly legacies.

The legacies we all have can be positive and helpful ones, or be negative and unhelpful. We need to recognise them and build on those that can develop us while at the same time minimise the negative tendencies we each have.

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.