I did an unintentional two-step with a small boy as I was trying to exit a restaurant recently. Every move I made toward the door, he innocently hopscotched his way across my path. Coolly observing our frustrating dance, his mother didn’t flinch. Instead of, “Billy, watch out. You’re blocking someone’s way,” or even pulling him to her side, she did nothing. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking. That it would be too traumatizing for him to be publicly redirected? That if anyone was to be inconvenienced, it should be me? But I don’t blame her. Wasn’t she just being a “good” parent?
Let me define how I’m using the term “bad parenting”: I’m not referring to parents who pummel their kids, mock them, or use them for perverse sexual pleasure. Or ones who turn a blind eye when others do. This isn’t about parents who abandon their kids to chase their own versions of happiness. This is about “bad” parents who love their kids but resist the hyper-indulgence that has become today’s poor substitute for parenting. This is about the “bad” parents who would have said, “Billy, you need to let this woman get by you.”
We all know by now what “good” parents do; namely, sacrifice all time, energy and resources to the higher calling of raising children. However, it seems many have confused normative parental sacrifice with the unquestioned accommodation of their children’s wants (not needs) and behaviors.
My own parents were distracted as a result of any number of family stressors. Because of that, my sister and I became highly independent. We got jobs as soon as the law allowed. We learned how to advocate for ourselves be it with teachers, bosses or car mechanics. In college, we found our own off-campus housing and paid our own rent. We bought and drove unsafe clunkers safely. And we learned to take care of ourselves and each other.
What was considered responsible (or passable) parenting even 25 years ago is “bad” parenting today. Letting our kids figure life out for themselves — through missteps and worse — is no longer an option. We’re paving a yellow brick road for our kids that won’t prepare them for the ending of that road, which is inevitable as soon as they land their first jobs. As adults, we already know the world isn’t always a soft place to land, so why aren’t we preparing them for the “man behind the curtain” — otherwise known as real life?
What’s Good About Bad Parenting
If your kid doesn’t make the team, maybe it’s because he can’t deliver the goods. If your kid gets a D in spelling, maybe it’s because she can’t spell. But today’s “good” parents won’t hesitate to confront (and blame) any teacher or coach who has inexplicably failed to see the future Tom Brady or Maya Angelou in their child.
But why would we ever want our kids to struggle?
Because not always getting what they want gives kids the opportunity to accept their strengths and weaknesses. If we continue to tell our kids they can do anything — and that we can help make that happen! — we’re deceiving them. We think we’re building them up but we’re really doing them a grave disservice in the self-discovery department. Instead, shouldn’t we help our kids discover what they love and what they’re good at so they can make reasonable and satisfying decisions about their futures?
Laying a carpet of cotton balls at the feet of our children will not serve them well. Wouldn’t it be better if we let their childhoods unfold without guiding, directing and interfering at every turn? Our knee jerk response is to jump in, to soothe, to manage. Of course, we want them to be happy and successful. But where do we draw the line?
Perhaps the world has become a more dangerous place requiring us to be continually connected to our kids. Technology makes that easy. But maybe this constant contact is an impediment to our kids learning to handle day-to-day challenges independently. I’ve heard “good” parents boast that by texting and talking with their kids umpteen times a day, they have an up-to-the-minute window into their lives. But when did enmeshment with our children become a desirable way to parent?
By today’s standards, I was both a “good” and “bad” parent (you can read about my “bad” parenting here). However, it turns out that some of my best parenting was “bad” parenting. I’m proud of my boys for their fierce independence, their self-advocacy, their management of difficult situations and horrible bosses, and their acceptance of things that don’t always go their way despite their best efforts. If some of those qualities are results of my “bad” parenting, I’ll happily live with that.