Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Up Side of Having Crappy Parents

I've been noticing a parental paradox for awhile now: People who hail from what I consider to be functional, loving families are often the very folks who seem the most haunted by guilt and regret in the interactions with their own kids.Why is it that the more praise, piano lessons, and general support a kid gets growing up, the more worried that adult seems to be about his or her own parenting skills?

Take my DH and SIL. Their parents were awesome, judging by how generally great both of them turned out to be as adults. And yet they sometimes fret about things that utterly perplex me. For example, SIL's family has been referring to her second child as "scamp" ever since the girl began defeating baby gates as an infant and crawling up and down the stairs at will. She's a toddler now, and remains a bag o' tricks around the house. But SIL recently told me that she feels bad about the nickname. Her family is trying hard not to use it anymore because she and her husband are concerned they may be imprinting erroneous negative expectations onto their daughter.

In other words, the child might not be a handful if they didn't comment on it. It's people calling her trouble that guarantees she will be trouble.

Now, maybe I've just been desensitized to this sort of thing. I did have the kind of mother who basically told me at age five that I was going to hell because I just wasn't nice enough to get into heaven. (What? This wasn't how your mom introduced the concept of death and the afterlife to you the first time someone close to you perished? Hmmm.) While I do understand that calling your daughter "s.l.u.t." or "good for nothing" all the time is going to cause problems, the idea that "scamp" is in that same category of those other things just makes giggle. At most, I figure it might annoy Scamp some day to be called this childhood name. As a mother, slightly annoying a child whom I spent many years taking care of each and every day and who, not incidentally, totally stretched out my abs when I was pregnant, would not really phase me. Not in the least.

If it's true that everyone measures success via the yardstick of their parents' lives, then having extremely good parents must be sort of annoying. They are the grade-curve breakers of the bunch. To compete with high excellence, you must be damn near perfect. In that scenario, I guess raising your voice testily at the kids when you have a headache or inventing embarrassing nicknames for a baby might actually rate as something to worry about. Because those are the details that separate the parenting aces from ... people like me!

The thing is, it's actually a pretty ok, being the parental version of me. Comfortable for me most of the time, and I suspect a lot nicer for my kids growing up than it was for me. Since my parents were crappy, I can aim for a solid B average and be an astounding improvement on what they achieved and quite satisfied with myself.

Here's a quick list of advantages that the crappily-reared adult has over their well-reared counterpart:

1) If You Had Bad Parents, You Already Know You Are Going to Screw Up. So You Can Get On With That Without Fear of When It's Going to Happen. Of all the innumerable things I worry about as a mom, fear of failure isn't on the list. (Am there, doing that.) Yet somehow the girls seem mostly normal -- I don't suspect either of them is a budding serial killer just yet. This cavalier attitude might seem poor to those with good parents but to me, I see my attitude as real generational progress over my own parents. It's pretty freeing to just accept that you are likely going to warp little Johnny and then just get on with it.

2) When You've Seen How Bad Family Life Can Be, Your Parenting Goals Are More Realistic. A friend once told me her ex-boyfriend wanted to raise "the kind of kids who are not afraid to change jobs when they grow up." And all I could think was exactly how do you teach your kids that? Seems like mostly luck and chance to me -- either they have an inborn drive and temperament for something or they don't. You can provide experiences, but what your kid takes away from them isn't a choice you make. And if you are constantly needing your kid to be a certain way in order to feel like a success, then you will also drive each other crazy as you try to pound your little square peg into a very round hole.

Me, I try to keep parenting goals centered on my behaviors rather than what the kids are doing. In fact, my only conscious goal with parenting is very simple: Don't be mean.

I do a fairly good job most days on my goal. But when illness or a bad mood drives me out of regular-cranky territory and into the land of possibly mean, I always apologize for it. And then I tend to give myself a break, because ...

3) I Know My Kids Will Love Me Despite the Fuck Ups. Kids are loyal like puppies. I know from personal experience that long after it is logical to do so, they will continue to love their parents in a deep and profoundly puzzling way. So while those with excellent parents may fear that setting up rules will result in permanent estrangement, people with crappy parents can feel free to lay down the law. Yeah, the kids will get mad. Whatever.

Crappy Parents: Don't you wish you had some, too?


meg said...

Hey, I got the crappy parents too. I think it has made me a stronger and more determined person. So, it's not all bad.

niobe said...

Exactly. As in so many other things, as long as your expectations are fairly low, it's easy to meet them. Works for me.

Lori said...

I love this post. It was funny, but thought provoking at the same time.

I agree a nickname like "Scamp" is hardly going to be damaging.

In our house I am the one with the "great" parents, and my husband is the lucky winner of truly crappy parents. And I think you are right, that my standards for myself are sometimes too high. The good thing is, he is here to balance me out and remind me how good our kids have it.

I also appreciated your point about not necessarily being able to "teach" your kids certain qualities that essentially boil down to personality. My oldest son struggles with internal motivation, my younger son is highly motivated. Same parents. Same basic upbringing. What can you do? They are just different.