Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Fuddy-Duddy Complex

Originally posted on March 21, 2008

This is a complex of a number of associated images, thoughts, and feelings that emerge regarding the theme of entertaining opinions and judgments about things that really don’t concern you. It occurred to me that this is a not uncommon theme for parents of adult children whose life choices differ in various ways from your own. (There are many complexes. Sigmund Freud talked about the “Oedipus Complex,” and Alfred Adler the “Inferiority Complex.” I occasionally make up others, like this one, the “Fuddy-Duddy Complex.”)

Some of the issues that evoke or activate this complex include the following:
Teenage slang, fashion, music, and many other “in-group” values and behaviors.
When your kids grow a bit more, as young adults:
– their choice of job, sexual preferences and styles, living arrangements
– wanting to live at home or for parents to continue to support them in any way
– moving away from home too far and not visiting enough, calling enough
– dating—or worse, wanting to marry—people whom you might not prefer as spouses or to have as an in-law “son” or “daughter”—much less their family as part of your family.
This could be based on race, religion, ethnicity, education, class—the propspective spouse being of a higher class (that you might imagine to be too snooty or formal) or lower class.
– changing to a different religion, becoming too non-religious, or perhaps too religious, more church-going and living by stricter rules than you do…
– developing significantly different political preferences, opinions, joining a different political party, or even just differing about a specific but significant issue
– their entertaining socially or not,
– gambling, investments, degrees of risk
– spending, too cheap, miserly, or too spendthrifty; extent of debt.
– other risk taking in sports and other hobbies
– too much television, news, video games, drinking, eating /overweight
or too little, not staying abreast of current events

When they do get married, they the complex constellates about the grandchildren, how they’re being raised, what they are “allowed to” get away with
– the parents seem too protective or not protective enough
– too strict or not strict enough
– what the rules are, how they enforce the rules
and so forth.

I’m reminded of the comedian George Carlin’s description of other drivers on the freeway: They’re either idiots or nuts. The idiots are those who drive slower than you do; the nuts are those who drive faster. The point is that so many of these opinions are based on your own level or style or degree of whatever, and your kids’ life-style in comparison to yours.  (Oh, here’s another item for the above list: You can fuss about how others either drive too fast or, on the other hand, seem too conservative in their driving, leaving you to want them to move it along!)

By extension, the fuddy-duddy complex goes beyond just your kids, and can expand, depending on how “severe” it is, in expanding social concentric circles, to nephews and nieces, cousins and siblings and other in-laws, neighbors, etc. Some people even involve their parents and spouses in this sphere of those able to evoke a degree of indignant fussing.

Nor must one be an elder. It is possible to evoke this complex even as a youngster—or the beginnings of it—and also during teen or young adult years. It has more to do with the inclination to be judgmental, and equally, the social surroundings that support the playing of the pastime that Eric Berne called the game of “Ain’t it Awful.” There’s a little enjoyment of righteous self-satisfaction and gossipy implication that at least we don’t do such things.

A related complex is hinted at by the German term, “Schadenfreud,” which means the enjoyment felt at someone else’s misfortune. The song, “Goody-Goody”—with the theme that now someone else has broken your ex-lover’s heart just like s/he broke yours—and “I hope you’re satisfied you rascal you!” also carries this dynamic. Back to Alfred Adler—the counter to the inferiority complex is a tendency to compensate by slipping into a superiority complex: The point, though, is that there can be many ways this manifests, this enjoyment of being one-up, and sometimes this dynamic can backfire by depleting your own psychological energy.

Fussing about others when you know that you have your own set of faults and challenges tends to make you even more guilty, ashamed, and slightly alienated when you project your own tendencies onto others and assume that they’re being judgemental of you. (In fact, most of the time they’re too busy with their own life challenges to even notice—or if they do notice, they hardly care.)

Resisting the Complex

The temptation to give in to a less-than-worthy attitude or behavior need not be given into. Part of maturation is learning to resist your many different temptations. You don’t have to poop in your pants with every colo-rectal spasm and urge—learning to contain your bowels is an early skill. Nor do you have to hit or scream whenever you get an anger urge—alas, that skill, while not qualitatively different, is sometimes not learned just a few years later (as it should be), but anger incontinence can continue well into adulthood.

Unfortunately, our culture—and shown on television—often seems to celebrate the expression of anger and violence as if it were a strength rather than a weakness. (Diplomacy and tact as a form of strength is hardly recognized on television, which panders to the immature aspects of people’s psychology.) So also is it common to show judgmental people—epitomized by the character of  Archie Bunker on the television situation comedy in the early 1970s, “All in the Family.”

So, when tempted to fuss and judge, consider that being a fuddy-duddy generally involves people and behaviors about whom you have no real responsibility or control, and whose life choices do not immediately impact your own. Of course, there are borderline or fuzzy areas where one might argue that concern is merited, but that’s not the point. The complex speaks to those situations that might dissolve under any degree of philosophical reflection.

Another way to illustrate complex is in the line: “There was a day when I just had to tell my point of view….”  — and the line is linked to the alternative attitude, as suggested in the title of the song: “Have You Never Been Mellow” (by John Farrar,  recorded by Olivia Newton-John in 1975).


This contemplation was triggered by the news that my adult children, my daughter and her husband—fine, mature people with young children themselves—had gotten a dog! After hearing the news, I rolled my eyes and (off the phone) complained to my wife about all the disadvantages of this action. At first my wife sympathized, added her own concerns, but a few minutes later observed, “You’re being a fuddy-duddy.” “I am not,” I replied, and huffed off and worked on some project. But I thought about it a bit and it occurred to me that I didn’t know a better name for this role. So I went into the kitchen where she was working and said, “You’re right. I’m being a fuddy-duddy. That’s exactly the right word.” We laughed and I’ve continued to think about it.

I didn’t “lay a trip” on my daughter, or fuss at her. In fact, a few days later I told her about this reaction and our naming of the complex and she found it delightfully amusing. The point in naming this complex, then, is to identify the temptation to act it out, to get grumpy and offer unsolicited advice, reproach, worry, and other unnecessary communications—but not to give in to the tempation! You don’t have to do everything you’re tempted to do.

Further Analysis

That’s the key: There are some communications that are clearly deserving of some un-asked-for advice: “You should see a doctor for that” might be a fair example. Maybe. But then there are lots of situations in which your opinion is not being asked for, and chances are high that if you gave it, this act would do no good and more likely create a small or larger gap in your relationship. The other person—say, your adult child, daughter-in-law, etc.—would rightly experience you as at least mildly intrusive and judgmental, even if it would not occur to them to use such terms consciously.

What’s going on here? Here are some speculations: First, there is the problem of poor boundaries. There’s a tendency to confuse the appropriately blurry boundaries of experience between a parent and a young child with the recognition of appropriateness of increasing boundaries as the youngster grows older. The key is, as mentioned, whether or not you are the one who will be held responsible or have to pay for the consequences of your youngster’s actions. As that becomes minimal, your concerns about things that don’t properly concern you render you subject to the fuddy-duddy complex.

Worrying about kids as they head off to college or head into the big world with having kids doesn’t really further their acquisition of increasing degrees of responsibility. The right thing is to have a lively sense of the pervasiveness of the temptation to give in to this pitfall, and by recognizing the complex, resisting it.

You’re still free to choose to intervene, give advice, fuss, when you think that it is politically wise and potentially effective, but it’s a matter of choosing your situations very carefully and after some reflection or talking with a spouse or good friend. When you just give in to habitual reaction patterns, then it’s a little neurotic—and what makes it neurotic is less what you do and more whenever you react out of habit and subconscious motivation, or in situations where most folks would be able to recognize it as un-called for and fruitless.

Another source that feeds this complex is that having opinions and feeling you have to speak about them often serves not the realistic needs of the situation, but rather your own subconscious sense of powerlessness. Opinions offer a symbolic sense that “I’m here, and I’m important, and what I say goes—or at least it should count for something.” Alas, in many situations, it doesn’t matter, and your opinions are often counter-productive in your effect.

Related to this, the complex may reflect a different kind of boundary problem. In certain roles, at work, in your club, your rank in the military, in the past, you may have more actual authority, responsibility, and power. In those roles your opinions really do count. The idea that you have other roles where they do not count is hard for some people to understand. There’s a residual of either-or thinking: You’re either big and important or your small and unimportant. But the more mature recognition is that status in one role may not bleed over into status in other roles.

There’s a residue here of decades if not centuries past, when fathers were accorded more authority and this was reinforced by society; or mothers, too, over their brood. In the 1960s Broadway musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” one of the sub-themes was that of the three daughters each making increasingly independent choices about their husbands, stretching the boundaries of propriety. This was a reflection of attitudes not only in our families, but in the families of many relatives and cultures where parental authority (such as in choice of a marriage partner for their later teen or young adult children) remains traditionally accepted.

A third factor in the fuddy-duddy complex is a social one rather than personal: We are expected to have conclusions, opinions. Teachers in high school would ask what we thought of some historical event and we were supposed to have a thought-out answer. “Whatever” was not an acceptable response. We are supposed to participate in politics and take sides—on issues, on candidates—and this is considered good citizenship. I am not objecting to this, except to suggest that it may not apply to all issues and should not be used habitually and mindlessly. (Yes, it is very easy to be mindless in repeating old opinions. These then give the illusion that one is thoughtful when in fact the thoughts have not been re-evaluated for years.)

I hope this naming of what may have not had a clear name before might be helpful in noticing such trends in your own life, and holding back in your generous opinion-offering. As I said, you’re free to do this—especially if you think it through, not just whether you are right, but whether it is truly useful. (I’m reminded of a quotation that says something like: Before speaking, ask yourself three questions: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?) The key is to interpose that evaluative capacity for reflection, in light of your best assessment of (1) your highest values, and (2) the actual circumstances in the present moment.

Fuddy-duddies tend to just flap their mouths, offer opinions and huff around, unconsciously hoping to be “respected.” Alas, this approach often generates the opposite. Your comments will be appreciated and may help me to refine the concept.

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