Friday, April 18, 2008

Good Parent Bad Parent

Last week, I wrote a post about Moms and Psychiatry; see "It's Your Mother's Fault".
People wrote in to say they had good moms, great moms, good dads, lousy dads. It got me thinking that there is an objective standard out there as to what makes a parent a good one (or even simply adequate). "I had a good mom" implies there is such a thing, but it seems to me that as with any given brand of ice cream, the issue of good versus bad is one of perception. Is there some one we all agree is a good mom? Carol Brady, perhaps? Perhaps it's more accurate to say that a person is a good mom for a particular kid, because it's hard to imagine, in my current state of teenage immersion, that there is someone our there who would be a great mom to every single kid.

I listen to a lot of parents. I listen to a lot of kids (not so just my own, but patients who are all someone's kids, though these "kids" range in age from 18 to 91). Here's what I've concluded.

There are some easy-going mild-tempered people out there who are are not terribly sensitive to exactly what is said or done to them, they are forgiving of bad days, perhaps even sympathetic to their parents' trials, and they don't tend to dwell on every grievance or imperfection their parents exhibit. These people tend to like their parents and tend to be happy people. This may be because they have perfect and wonderful parents, or it may be that they tune out their parents' mistakes.

In the absence of the super-easy going person who doesn't scrutinize their parents, I've found that kids and parents judge parenting by completely different standards.

Parents focus on what they've done for their kids, what material comforts and securities they've provided, especially if it exceeds what was provided for them. They focus on the amount of time and effort they put into forwarding their childrens' interests and education-- so getting up at 5 AM to take a kid to hockey seems like a sacrifice, and points should be earned towards the good parent award. Sitting on the side lines as a spectator to any musical/artistic/ theatrical/ or athletic event counts. Cooking special birthday meals, buying presents, allowing friends to overrun the house, these all counts. Extra points please for coaching teams, den mothers, snack parent organizers, lifeguarding at a home pool.

Children expect exemplary parents. Everyone else these days seems to have them, and they view life in a more "points off" standard. Everyone's dad coaches something, it's no big deal and effusive gratitude is not part of the deal. Children, however, know exactly what the perfect parent is : Mike and Carol Brady have set the standard--- remember that blended couple with the 6 kids from the 1970's where every problem got solved in a half-hour episode, no one talked back, and no child ever mentioned that one of their parents was a step-parent. Funny, those kids never missed their absent natural parent, and not once did a kid scream "You're not my real dad, you can't tell me what to do!" So kids dock you for losing your temper, saying things that objectively sound horrible---parents aren't allowed to call kids names no matter how extremely they are provoked. The translation goes "My mother used to tell me she hated me." Funny, the story never gets told as "My mother told me she hated me every time I cut up her good silk blouses to use for art projects." Okay, okay, even I don't think people should profess hatred for their kids, but I do think we've established a hard-to-attain standard for the Good Parent that leaves little wiggle room for the fact that parents are people too, and sometimes they react in impulsive ways: Points OFF, and no going back. Kids are kids, they're transgressions are part of the deal.

I talked to Clink about this the other night and she mentioned that good parents are Consistent. I thought about that. Children are moving targets, they come up with new antics (some of them fabulously amusing, some of them totally infuriating), and the moment you get the hang of it, they move on to the next developmental stage and the rules all fly out the window. So how do you be consistent when you're dealing with a target in perpetual motion?

Okay, so What's a Good Parent and What's a Bad Parent and why do some kids seem fine with people many of us would agree are awful parents while other kids feel tormented by parents who seem to be doing all the important things right? And should I even ask how much parenting steers how the child turns out? Maybe it's all in the chemicals, balanced or otherwise


Sara said...

I think your point about it depending on the kid means a lot. My parents were totally inconsistent, we had absolutely no discipline, they certainly did *not* run around getting us to soccer games and buying us stuff, we had no extra lessons (that we wouldn't have wanted anyway) but they were good parents and we turned out fine. Why?

They encouraged us to be creative (write, paint, whatever we wanted) and independent thinkers. They read to us and got us any books we wanted. The laissez-faire style of parenting made us learn responsibility for ourselves, rather than have some random style of rules and discipline imposed. We learned that everyone, including parents, is only human, and might be annoyed by something one day that wouldn't matter at all the next. They could fuck up too, and from that, we learned that people can fuck up, and to be compassionate about it.

This might have been disaster for a different kind of kid. But it worked out okay, because it fit our temperaments well.

Alison Cummins said...

A good parent:
- meets the child's physical needs, including safety;
- lets the child know she/ he is loved;
- sets limits on unacceptable behaviour such as playing in the middle of the highway - even if the child perceives this to be 'unfair';
- allows the child to make age-appropriate choices (which means any and all choices once the child is eighteen) and to face the natural consequences of those choices, good and bad;
- has high standards and teaches them.

I think my mother made more mistakes with me than she did with her younger children. She also yelled at her younger children more, which was probably a good thing. We all turned out ok in our own way, including my brother with schizophrenia who is able to maintain mutually pleasing relationships with all his family members.

I never watched the Brady Bunch. The only people I know who really cared about the goodness of Carol Brady as a mother were seriously abused as children. The Brady Bunch offered them hope in an alternative vision of the world.

I always thought Roseanne was a pretty good mother.

*** *** ***
RE differing perspectives on the good parent. Uncovering them can be revealing and emotional. My ex used to complain about her father. He was controlling; narrow-minded; verbally abusive; cheated on her mother; didn't listen; used money to manipulate people. She struggled as an artist for a long time and the only thing her father could say to her was to belittle her for not having enough money. He boasted about being a good husband and father: he kept the same good union job all his life, he slept at home every night and his children never wanted for food.

At the final vigil when my ex and her aunt were waiting at his bedside for him to die, the aunt talked about their childhood. Their father had been a physically abusive alcoholic. He would disappear intermittently for weeks or months at a time and his wife would have no idea when he was coming back. She would move into her own mother's living room with her several children when the food ran out. Eventually he would show up again when he had some money, charm the children and impregnate his wife again before getting drunk, assaulting them and disappearing again.

So my ex's father knew very well what an inadequate father was. He was justifiably proud of the stability he had been able to provide his family. He knew it was important and he knew how possible it was to fail. And he did it without the example either of his own father or that of Mr. Brady.

Growing up, of course my ex was only conscious of what she didn't have, which was a respectful and emotionally attentive father. Learning where he came from helped her have compassion for him - and to appreciate what he gave her.

My ex is a difficult person, but pretty special. She turned out ok in her own way.

Your kids don't fill out your report card. They *are* your report card. If at age twenty-five they are good people with high standards for themselves, you were a good parent. Whether or not they thought you were cool when they were fifteen doesn't enter into it.

Actually, if your fifteen-year-old thinks you're cool it's probably a bad sign. I'm kind of Freudian that way. He kept nattering on about how mothers were inadequate and consistently failed their children, but his point was that this was both inevitable and a good thing: children build their personalities and competencies by learning to cope with the disappointments of existence. So many people take away the opposite message - that being the occasion for disappointment on their child's part causes suffering and therefore damage. But I go with the original interpretation. Learning that one can survive the pangs of hunger while one waits for the shirt to be lifted, the bra to be undone and oneself to be lifted into position is not a lesson a week-old baby wants to learn, but one learns it nonetheless. To one's benefit.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps by the standard of providing materially my parents felt they had done a good job. We never had a lot, but we had food on the table, furniture in the rooms, clothes on our backs. They even managed to acquire a used piano and I had piano lessons and ballet lessons for many years.

However, nothing I ever did was good enough, even if consistently I was the top student in my class (which I was). I was (consistently) hit and screamed at, and to make it more consistent, I was hit and screamed at by BOTH parents. However, it was equal opportunity because my sister ALSO was hit and screamed at and just to balance things out SHE hit and screamed at me too, and of course my parents spent hours screaming at each other. If I cried for being hit, my Mom tossed a glass of ice water in my face because she did not like to hear crying.

I did NOT cut my mother's silk blouse up as the "cause" of the above hitting and screaming as is implied in the article (that the child CAUSES the parent to treat the child in the manner in which they are treated). In fact, I can recall little that I did wrong as I very early on became VERY VERY well behaved and ultra quiet in an effort to fly under the radar. My Father would become enraged for example if he could not find a hammer or screwdriver of his and the blame for that would fall on us whether or not it was our fault. If I dropped a book or dropped anything, it would bring out rage in my parents. It was little things that I could not control that brought the hell down on me. But at least you can say it was consistent.

Somehow I turned out OK. I am smart and a hard worker, but I somehow managed to learn to be empathetic and kind to other people as well. I have lots of friends and a good life (far from my hometown and crazy family). I had WONDERFUL teachers many of whom took me under their wing (I was one of my many teachers' "pets") Plus I give great credit to the psych community for my emotional development. The therapists I had in college first helped me learn to communicate emotionally and in a way perhaps became my surrogate parents. I have continued and from time to time in my adult life I've gone to therapists who helped me grow. I have the best of all now, an amazingly brilliant and empathetic psychiatrist. He specializes in psychotherapy and uses drug therapy in a very limited manner unlike most psychiatrists today.

Anonymous said...

Good dads are not their daughters first boyfriend and good mothers don't fake not knowing. They may have had screwed up childhoods but it was not their right to pay it forward. Good parents do yell at their kids. Good parent does not mean their kid is their best buddy. Good parent means they are a parent, not a user. They are a parent and do not make the kid rescue them and take care of their sexual and emotional and power and later on financial needs because they blew it on gambling or boozing.

jcat said...

As you really depends on the kid. My folks have always given my sister and I everything that they feasibly could, be it in terms of finance, time, love.

I still remember being the only kid some years whose Dad made the time to come to sports days/plays/chapel/everything that we did - and it was only years later that I realised how hard it must have been for him to do that. I remember many many instances of my Mom being there for us, taking us places, doing things with us. She spent two entire days coaching me for the school play in the school hall...because my orthodontist had changed my braces the week before and no-one could hear what I was saying.

Sure, they were there for us every single day, in all the ways that they knew how. There are still some things that stand out in hindsight as to how very much they cared for us.

I was an easy kid (I think) other than my penchant for climbing fences and anything else possible, even before I could actually walk. I turned into a Bipolar teenager from hell, and it took a long time for my folks and I to get easy with each other again. To this day, my mother can turn me into an awkward 15-year-old git in about 10 mins. My sister is balanced enough to say that my mom is a bit of a control freak, and secure enough to call mom out on it. I'm not.

I think ultimately your parents might have an influence on who/what you turn out to be, but they are not the deciding factor. That is down to some arbitrary gene mix, and your parents sole input to that is maybe mixing one lot of piss-poor-protoplasm with another. Maybe doing really bad things to your kids is also a factor, but I reckon that barring serious abuse, good/bad parenting is really a measure of how good their intent is, and what you would be anyway. I honestly believe that - given my sister and I are very close in age, and I don't think my folks changed in knowledge or skill between the two of us - if you have non-malicious parenting, what you become is dependant on you and your own skills.

I'm a f*k-up. My sister is completely not. We were raised exactly the same, and still are... how can that possibly be my parents' fault??

p.s. I thought the BB rocked! All of them!

Anonymous said...

I agree with therapy patient and anonymous I will add...a good mother doesn't use the child as a punching bag because the child is "stealing" the mother's husband. A good parent does not give a 7-day-old infant to a (stable, healthy) realative to raise then remove the child every few months for week long visits for the first 3 years of its life. A good parent does not tell a 5-year-old that an abortion would have been preferable to the child's birth, then explain in graphic terms what an abortion is. A good parent does not beat a child severely at the top of the basement stairs and then laugh when the child falls (is pushed?) down the stairs and breaks her wrist, this for missing curfew by 15 minutes. A good parent does not move to another state when school authorities begin to question things, I could go on and on.

Dinah said...

Interesting comments.
Please note this post wasn't about child ABUSE....more about parents living up to an ideal, children being disappointed, parents as fallible people who make 'mistakes'...

Physically or sexually abusive parents are bad parents. This was not something I was calling into question.

Parents who are vicious and berating are damaging, but in the absence of an outside judge, my sense is that the story gets told from different perspectives: I've never had a patient tell me they were abusive to their children, and yet I've seen many adults who feel they were abused as children.

My post is about perspective, I don't believe there is a simple formula for Good Parent Bad Parent. Generally, people who are sure of themselves as parents have been a) blessed with very easy kids or b)haven't had kids !!

Anonymous said...

I think that like many other things in human behavior, there is a spectrum that runs from "very strict" to "abusive". Somewhere along the way behavioral corrections become abusive.

I am surprised Dinah has never had a patient admit they abused their children. I had a close friend admit to me that she abuses her cats and her child, but she has found herself unable to stop the behavior. She was abused as a child and she knows I was also. I suggested therapy. She did go and hopefully she eventually addressed the topic in therapy. I think that would be an especially difficult topic to broach.

I don't know how parents who call their children cruel, insulting names, and who regularly hit children for minor offenses can NOT consider themselves abusive. However, I know that my own parents considered abuse to be lasting damage to the child such as broken bones, cracked skull, or death. The time my Father nearly strangled my sister, but stopped short of actually killing her did not count.

Dinah said...

two factors here:
--Cultural changes, things we would clearly call abuse now (even if doled out for Major infractions) were once considered socially acceptable forms of discipline. The victims of such abuse either view it in that light, or have re-framed that culture into our current cultural views and call it abuse, while the generation of perpetrators see it simply as 'what people did.' I would contend that this type of abuse/discipline still goes on and our culture has not dealt with drawing a clear enough line. In Many states (Maryland is not one of them) it remains legal to paddle schoolchildren-- the most recent numbers I saw in the NYTimes (of course) -- are 300,000 a year. In some places, this can occur even if the parent objects. Seems like assault to me (but nobody asked me).

--Child abuse requires mandatory reporting in patients don't wander in and say "I threw my kid down the stairs last night, broke a few bones."

Sometimes adults say things to their children they wish they didn't or that they worry will damage the child, things they didn't mean but they were tired/provoked/angry at someone else, and it's hard to be perfect. And again, I'm not talking about repeated patterns of degradation, I'm talking about the fact that some humans with the best of intentions aren't always perfect at censoring their output while upset. Most of this stuff flies over many kids---lots of resilient people out there, kids are strong, kids can understand "Oh, I'm mad at my boss and I took it out on you". Some parents go so far that these are lame excuses for horrid behavior. Some kids are very sensitive. And some kids are very sensitive because...if your parents scream at you All the time it becomes the background noise of life. If they scream at you only once in a great while, it has a lot of power and those are the things that stick. Everyone is different.
If you have an absolutely proven formula that has worked on an N of more than 20, send it.

Anonymous said...

I think that for those of us that have had abusive parenting, perspective is hard to come by.

Anonymous said...

You are right about the cultural perspective. I remember when I was in grammar school, kids traded stories of the bad things their parents did to them. Regardless of how I was treated there were kids who were treated worse than I was. Corporal punishment was already banned in the public schools at that time but my friends in Catholic school were whacked with rulers by the nuns and sometimes with a book and that was well-known and accepted treatment of children.

Despite the cultural acceptance of corporal punishment at that time though, the anger, viciousness, and lack of control (plus lack of a real reason many times) my parents showed crossed the line as far as I am concerned despite any dispensation they might get for it being the 1950's-1960's. My closest friends in the neighborhood where I grew up had much kinder, more loving parents. Luckily I spent a lot of time at their homes. NOBODY wanted to come to my house for good reason.

Anonymous said...

I think the perspective thing is important but it also applies to the setting that people are in when they talk about their parents. I would imagine that a patient in therapy is talking about moments that stand out as painful or even traumatic, so it follows that when talking about their parents patients would be recalling bad moments in a particularly critical way.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate reading your piece and the comments, all too often i get emotionaly wired when it comes to thinking on my own upbringing. not only do i question whether i have turned out alright i also question what kind of a parent i will be and if it will be enough to not repeat my parents mistakes. i also wonder if there will be a discrepancy between my percieved skills as a parent and what m children will think of me. on reading this i can understand that there is no such norm; i have too many friends with "bad parents" and the whole thing is subjective, we could ask for more but when would we know when to stop? i think an important thing about parenting is that it is not soley a parent who should bring up a child rather it should be the job of a community to bring up its children. this way parents are constantly self auditing and the cultural norm would have more integrity. children would probably give thier parents less hassle too.. S xx

Mandy said...

A good parent is one that prepares their child to attain their own version of happiness in life. A good parent teaches their child, one way or another: self discipline, the value of working hard, good social skills, good coping skills, to have an open mind, and self love. They also show the child what a healthy meaningful relationship is by having one with the child.

A bad parent lets children give up when they think something is too hard, does everything for them, gives little opportunity for human interaction, does not show a child how to deal with anger, frustration, disappointment, or sadness, teaches that their way is the right way and the only way, and disrespects/abuses/neglects their child.

In my opinion, it all comes down to the parent being an adult mentally, loving their child, and accepting that their child is their own person.

Kari said...

I think an example from dog training would be relevant. Some dogs are friendly and mild. If they're raised by a bad owner they might become insecure, bark too much and pee on the floor, but they're never going to bite anyone. Other dogs are quite challenging--strong, aggressive, smart, independent-minded. With an unskilled owner, they can turn out very badly.

Strong, kind, and skillful trainers can raise any puppy and get terrific results, although the adult dogs will differ from one another according to genetic endowment.

It makes sense to think of kids as the same. But here's the deal: when you decide to have kids, you really don't know what kind you're going to get. You're signing on for life, so don't have a kid if you're not either confident in your ability to do a good job of rearing him/her, or secure and dedicated enough to seek out whatever kind of help you need when you run into trouble.

(And no, I'm not saying kids are dogs, and I'm not saying parenting=animal training ... but I do think the comparison sheds light on the issue.)

The problem is, most people just have kids because it's the next step, or because they want a baby. (Or because mom gets pregnant.) They don't seriously address the question of whether or not they'll be good parents ahead of time.

Re the chemicals vs parents issue, there's "The Nurture Assumption." I mentally argued with that book all the way through, but the author made a lot of good points. I do accord the peer group a lot more weight than I did before I read the book.

As far as this goes: "why do some kids seem fine with people many of us would agree are awful parents while other kids feel tormented by parents who seem to be doing all the important things right?" I would guess that the answer comes down to love, convincingly expressed. I can't say too much more about this because I don't have a big database. Offhand I can't think of any friends who had parents "many of us would agree are awful" and yet still speak well of them. But I do think telling your children you love them every day (and meaning it) would go a long way toward making a child feel secure in this world.