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