The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, August 09, 2010

Do Parents Matter?

I recently bought food for a homeless woman and her dog. Talking to her while we waited, it was clear that her thinking was a bit disorganized (couldn’t keep time lines straight). And it came out that her father had been sexually abusive. Yes, people say things like that to me on first meeting. I thought back three weeks to another homeless woman I met, who has two kids by two different fathers, and her attitude was that she could raise them fine by herself (she had temporary housing at this time.) She said “kids today don’t need fathers, right? I didn’t have one.”

This ties in with a recent conversation over on Facebook regarding the question “can good parents have bad kids?” My position was that I will define “parenting” in terms of results, not intentions. That if you think you have a bad kid, you can’t simultaneous consider yourself a “good” parent (unless you have multiple kids, and the others are “good.”) The idea was pretty simple to me, but it caused a lot of controversy. What if your kid is mentally ill? (Does that make them “bad”? I certainly didn’t suggest that) and then all sorts of other conversations about the choices kids make, and the environment, and so forth.

None of which was relevant to me. If you had a nightmare kid, then, quite simply, you never had the chance to be a “good” parent, regardless of your potential or intentions. It was simply a definition of the term “parent”, not a judgement of the worth of the person, get it? Maybe “good” or “bad” can’t be quantified when it comes to this. But IF you can decide what a good or bad kid is...then you can do the same for parents.

Now, point would be that the set of people with good children has a subset called “good parents.” In other words, some people turn out fine even though their parents are assholes. So I’m not saying that “everyone with good children is a good parent. Everyone with bad children is a bad parent.” In fact, I never said anything about “if you have a bad kid, you’re a bad parent.” But boy, that was the way people reacted.

One of the themes that returned repeatedly was the idea that kids would just be what they were, and you couldn’t do much about it. That’s one attitude. Not mine, but that’s all right, as long as you and your kids are happy with the results (and here’s another thought: by my way of thinking, in general, your kids will agree if you’ve been a good parent. Maybe not until they’ve had kids of their own, but they will. Communication is a part of the package.)

How much do parents contribute to the health and well-being and success of their kids? How valuable is a two-parent family? Do kids need fathers?

Welll...I’m certainly not going to convince people who have a political position on this. Won’t try. I’ll only say this: if you go to prisons, the number of violent prisoners who came from stable two-parent families is almost nil. When I talk to homeless people, the percentage of them who had fathers in their homes who were even minimally engaged...almost zero. Talk to women who have had multiple children by multiple men without being married to any of them...absent fathers.

People making bad choices because they have no idea what a good choice is. Had no support. Don’t even know where “health” can be found. Have never seen a good marriage, or had the deep support of someone who loves them and will place a child’s happiness higher than their own.

While it proves NOTHING, I have seen so much of this over the years that I performed a thought experiment:
1) If at the moment of death, I saw with absolute clarity that I could have made my children’s lives better, healthier, happier had I assumed that they needed me there, needed both a mother and a father to be the best they can would be excruciatingly painful if I had not done my best.
2) If, at the moment of death, I saw with absolute clarity that my kids would have been the same regardless of my efforts, that any extreme efforts or guilt were know something? Big deal. I can handle that just fine.

Vastly, hugely, with no comparison, I would rather err on the side of doing too much. By a huge margin, the kids I know who grew up “bad” had too little, rather than too much, engagement. Their parents were erratic, alcoholic, abusive, self-serving. While some parents who “hovered” had kid problems, there was simply no comparison. And that’s looking back over more than forty years of observation.

We cannot ultimately determine what is caused by nature, and what by nurture. I choose to take the harder path--I’m going to act as if my presence and actions make a huge difference. It is the harder decision, and it’s been my experience that, in relationships, the harder path turns out to be the right thing to do in an irritatingly high percentage of cases.

My kids deserve the benefit of the doubt.


Marty S said...

We all have a set of strengths and a set of weaknesses. My parents played a role in both. The actions they took and the things they said that led to both the strengths and weakness, I believe were always intended to make me a better person. So, however I turned out I would classify them as good parents.

Clint Johnson said...

For a look at the extreme, check out this video by neuroscientist James Fallon on the effects of genetics and environment as underlying factors for how psychopaths express. He talks about how he has the genetic markers and brain patterns of a classical psychopath but that a good, loving upbringing by his parents seems to have inured him against that.

Neuroscientist James Fallon on psychopaths and libertarians

Hospodi said...

Steven again I have to say your posts are insightful and the topics are so honest and valuable. Thank you.