The measure of a good parent isn’t what you think it is

Some years ago I recommended a story over at Love, Joy, Feminism, written by a blogger who goes by Libby Anne. The post was titled “She seems to have turned out pretty well!” and referred to a defensive comment made by Libby Anne's mother when confronted with her own old-fashioned, authoritarian parenting techniques.

The mother's comment is commonplace in talks about child-rearing.

A couple of years back, when I was interviewed for a Facebook series about punitive timeouts, a good number of viewers responded in similar ways:

"A swift little pop on the thigh or behind is not a beating nor a spanking but conveys quickly & clearly that the child’s behavior is not acceptable & should stop immediately," wrote a Tennessee grandmother. "I’m sure I would be going to jail now — but my children turned out fine."

A North Carolina karate teacher, wrote: "I didn’t tolerate bad behavior when my son and daughter were small. There were consequences when they were bad. They are 22 and 23 and they grew up beyond my expectations."

I have no doubt these folks are being honest, but a deeper truth remains: Spanking, yelling, grounding and, yes, even timeouts, are part of a controlling parenting model associated with a host of serious problems.

In Libby Anne's case: She'd always been open about the difficulties she'd faced as a direct result of her mother's authoritarian-to-the-point-of-abuse ways. So when her mother, at a social gathering, downplayed her role by remarking that her daughter “turned-out-pretty-well,” Libby Anne hit the goddamn roof.

She wrote:

This is why my mother and I can't have a normal relationship. She knows full well that I am not okay with the way she disciplined me as a child, and that I am intentionally doing things differently with my own children. We've clashed many times over this. And yet she says thing like this. It's not just her, though. Abusive and authoritarian parents across a wide spectrum frequently use how well their children turned out as justification for their parenting methods.

It's kind of ridiculous when you think about it.

Millions of people turn out well despite what their parents did to them, not because of it. Plus, the assumption that a person “turned out well” is often based on external traits or conditions that society has deemed advantageous:

Job, marriage, money, house, kids, friends, general likability.

If we check all the boxes, it means we "turned out" just fine, great even! And good thing, too, because our parents now get to congratulate themselves on jobs well done. (And who doesn't want to make their Momma proud?)

But, as most of us know instinctively, a person's public persona and personal accomplishments aren't the yardsticks that matter most. What matters, truly, is our inside lives — our self-esteem, our self-talk.

How we talk to and treat our children now will become how they talk to and treat themselves later.

Whether or not you think that's woo-woo, this is extraordinarily important stuff, and it sets the tone for whether we live fulfilling lives. Sure, money and marriage and likability might sound good to you — nothing wrong with that. But the wisdom of the ages, and our own common sense, tells us this isn't what fills our buckets. What allows us to breathe easy and find joy comes down to our ability to like ourselves, to be satisfied with our choices, to do the things we genuinely love, to have healthy communication with our friends and family, to ward off various neurosis, and to face adversity with courage and grace, among other things.

We all have silent, daily struggles that others don't perceive — even people close to us. They may see what we're wearing or notice how gracious or friendly we are, but they don't necessarily notice our feelings of isolation, insecurity, disconnection, and unworthiness. And we don't notice theirs.

This is by design. Many of us were taught from very young ages to store those bad feelings away (which is painfully ironic, as it's airing them openly that finally allows us to heal). Often those bad feelings were dismissed as negative, inappropriate behavior — behavior that our parents didn't tolerate. As a result, we learned our bad feelings were a problem. Hide the hurt, hide the anger, hide the frustration, hide the confusion, hide the fear, and everything will go more smoothly.

Children have so much joy in their lives; they can seem so confident; and they are naturals at seizing the day. It's easy to forget that there is pain in there, too. Real pain. The kind that grows over time like a rolling snowball.

Abusive and authoritarian parents across a wide spectrum frequently use how well their children turned out as justification for their parenting methods.

When we refuse to see our children's pain, when we turn away from their inside lives because we don't want to deal with it or are afraid of what we'll find; when we contribute to their pain by manipulating their behavior, punishing their mistakes and pushing them to become something they may not be cut out to be — we fail at the most important task we've ever been given.

I’m not trying to be overly dramatic (or overly critical), although I am aware that I may be pushing some buttons here. Parenting is hard and complicated. No one is going to excel in every area; all parents are going to need forgiveness — a lot of it! — sooner or later. I'm convinced even the most well-brought-up kids eventually will need therapy for something, if they're not already in it. (Mine is! More on that in another post.)

Still, controlling parenting (which is similar to what people often call authoritarian) has serious negative consequences. Our voices (our kind, loving, patient, demanding, critical, condescending voices) may echo in our children’s minds for the rest of their lives; how we talk to and treat them now will become how they talk to and treat themselves later.

Whether our kids are polite or well-behaved; whether they go to Harvard; whether they land decent jobs; whether they drive cool cars or own houses on the beach — these may give us bragging rights in certain circles, but they aren’t yardsticks of our parenting prowess.

And the sooner we recognize this, the better.