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The Benefits of Being a Bad Parent
As a parent, my greatest fear is that my kids will end up just like me. I’m happy they look somewhat similar, if only they can avoid behaving so. I’m a mess of fear and insecurity and weakness, pride and condescension and callousness, laziness and carelessness and shallowness. I don’t want my daughter to see me argue with my wife and think it’s normal or hear me complain and think it’s fine. I don’t want her to think that, because I lack ambition, she shouldn’t strive for more or that, because I am quiet and reclusive, she should not speak up and reach out. I want her to be better than I am, but how can I teach what I don’t know?
In our technological age, we put a lot of faith in structural forces. We believe in the power of parenting, of education, of social programs to bring about good outcomes in people. We also believe in the power of our institutions to fail us, for systemic bias and racism, lack of education, and broken family structures to drag down and hold back those who would otherwise be perfectly good and successful citizens. So we produce and read countless books on parenting techniques, spend thousands or move across the city to send our kids to the best schools, obsess and argue over minute public policy details and court decisions. We want to believe in this power because we have some measure of control over them, because they seem to be amenable to the scientific analysis and technological solutions at which we excel. Our faith is not wholly irrational. We aren’t wrong to work on those aspects of society we can control and make them the best that we can. And yet, to attribute to ourselves too much power is to live a life full of anxiety and anger, disappointment and resentment.
It’s a good thing we don’t have that power over our children. It’s my only hope. My trouble is in thinking that my children’s futures depends solely on my skill or virtue as a parent. It’s wrong to assume that my kids will mimic me or learn everything I try to teach them. Children are not an imitation of their parents (or teachers) but a reaction to them. They are fully human, complex beings. They learn from their own experiences lessons we didn’t mean to share, and they are capable of recognizing and correcting our errors. If I am very strict as a parent, my kids might become uptight rule-followers, but then they might rather rebel and become distrustful of authority. If I yell and scream at my children, perhaps they will, knowing no other way, develop anger problems of their own, but they might, having felt the wrath, resolve never to inflict it on others. It’s possible, by the application of overwhelming care and affection, to produce spoiled and cruel children. In the end, there’s not much you can do except to be yourself, rather than try to control their future, to love them the best you can, to provide them what is needed and not too much more. I’ve always thought the best way to be a good parent is to have good children. Yet there is always a danger to having children, the same danger we face ourselves, but we do it nonetheless for the hope of joy, even in suffering.
The real danger would lie in being too effective a parent. If children could be a molded and manipulated into exactly what we wanted, we would either create little clones, blind to our own faults, or else little slaves, aware of our own desires. Either way would be the end of us, through stagnation or servitude. Our only hope is that our children do not turn out like we wish. Because we are imperfect parents, because we are often bad parents, the next generation will be, if not better, at least different. Our sins may be passed down—indeed, some sin will always be passed down—but it may not be the same sins. There is the possibility of improvement, halting or retreating though it may be at times.
This is as true politically, spiritually, and philosophically as it is personally. It may well be that love is on the decline, that polarization is rising, truth is being lost and devalued, that hatred and fear are becoming normal. The current age may seem like a retreat from all we once valued, and how will anyone ever learn or change their minds? The structural forces at work seem too powerful to overcome. For us, they may be. But those coming after us may hate what they see in us, and they do not have to follow in our footsteps. The next generation always offers the hope of some renewal. Our children will not always repeat our mistakes.