They’ll Be Okay: Bad Parents Can Raise Good Children

Even dysfunctional parents turn out great kids.

I should know. I lived it and am proud to say, I developed my parenting philosophies from their mistakes which were many. I realize, however, the one thing they did right was be present. We were always a family unit of five. We had breakfast and dinner (supper in the south) together. As bad as it got sometimes, we ate together.

I’ve thought about this thing called parenting a lot, specifically mothering.

I lost my mother when she was 95 years old. She had a long run at life. Sometimes it was good; sometimes not so good. While she was with me physically, the truth is I never felt her emotional presence. She was for the most part in the background; perhaps because she was the one who always had the steady job. This is where the storyline of Maagy never knowing her mother manifested, I suppose. My father was the one who made the rules and issued the dictates and brought down the hammer of justice, thus, the strong hand of King Henry. The difference between King Henry and Daddy is that King Henry is patient and kindly, while Daddy was volatile and temperamental with a short fuse. However, like Maagy and King Henry, my dad and I were very close. I knew he loved me.

My parents certainly did not teach by example, but I learned the lessons, anyway.

The fact is all we can do is the best we can do. It won’t always be right, but at least we will have tried. That is greatest lesson I took away from my experience. My parents were ill equipped to be parents. I was afraid I was cursed with the “sucky parent” gene. I started my parenting career as a “rage-aholic” doling out punishment in anger, screaming at the top of my lungs, and throwing things. I realized that my children were afraid of me… literally afraid of me… and not in that good way you want your teenagers to fear you but frightened that I would really do them bodily harm. I had become my father. I was walking down the same path.

I remembered the fear.

That wake-up call sent us to counseling as a family, individually, and as a couple. I learned from Daddy’s and my mistakes and became a better mother. It’s a good thing, too, because I suddenly found myself with teenage daughters who were determined to ‘make me smell pepper’ as my grandmother would say. I managed to find the right balance between restraint and instilling the fear of God in them. I once told one of them I could be her best friend or her worst enemy; the choice was hers, but I would always be her mother, first and foremost. I told them both that I was a tough old broad and there was nothing either could say to make me not love them. We survived those slammed doors and frustrated screams. Both of them are brave, strong, independent, savvy women whom I have the privilege to call my daughters and the pleasure to call my friends.

The philosophy I adopted was a do-the-opposite paradigm. I kept love in my heart, even when handing out the punishments.

I was not afraid to let my children know when I made mistakes or spoke too quickly… too severely… punished too punitively. I apologized more than once for not being fair and measured in making the sentence fit the crime. My dad never said, “I’m sorry”, for anything. He was ruthless about grounding me and putting me on house arrest for months at a time. To a teenager, a month is an eternity. The way I turned the story around was to allow the child who had lost privileges to earn them back one at a time. This is not to say I went back on my word, rather, I gave them the opportunity to save face; to work toward a goal. Children respect firm rules and they also respect adults who can teach them compromise and humility.

Another of my turn-it-around messages was to say, “I love you”, on a daily basis even when I was grounding them.

I never remember either of my parents telling me they loved me as a child or a teen or even an adult until toward the end of my mother’s life. I never left her without saying those three words. She caught on and responded in kind. The take away lesson here is that we are human. We are going to make mistakes. The little ones will be forgotten. Even most of the big ones won’t matter when love is the primary motivation. So, tell them often.

The point of all this anecdotal rambling is to say to young parents RELAX!

Each word spoken harshly, each missed performance or game, each moment of self-absorption is not going to scar your child for life. Your perceived poor parenting skills will not haunt them until your or their dying day. Your kids will be okay as long as you admit your own mistakes and be present in their lives even if that presence is grouchy, tired, preoccupied, frustrated or angry. Losing patience is not the end of the world as long as your children know there is love behind it all. I always knew I was loved even in the worst of it.

Enjoy your kids. They are kids for only a little while. Love them fiercely and the rest will work itself out.

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