What does a normal, healthy family look like?
October 5, 2010 11:16 AM   Subscribe

You grew up in a loving, healthy home. Your parents were normal, in that they were imperfect and made mistakes, but did a pretty damn good job raising their children. What was the nature of their mistakes? How did they affect you? What does a good, real family look like?

I'm a mother to a beautiful little girl who I love very much. Before getting pregnant, I took several child development classes. Throughout her childhood, I've read books and searched the web for information to guide me in being the best parent I can be for her.

I don't have the benefit of experience of a normal, healthy family. I feel I may be overcompensating by striving for perfection in myself as a parent, and as a result I beat myself up whenever I fall short. I need a look at a healthy reality to help balance my expectations of myself.
posted by moira to Human Relations (69 answers total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
 
One of the things my brother would shout in his 5-10 year old tantrums was "I WISH I COULD GO LIVE WITH A NORMAL FAMILY!" And my parents would just laugh and laugh.

There is no such thing as a normal family.
posted by phunniemee at 11:23 AM on October 5, 2010 [19 favorites]


Striving for perfection and beating yourself up are contradictory positions.

There's no such thing as a normal family. There are endless variations on what constitutes a healthy family. Work to be the latter. Don't even think about the former.
posted by The World Famous at 11:25 AM on October 5, 2010


My parents, who are really pretty normal, did yell at me from time to time. My dad smacked me on the back of my head once or twice.

I don't advocate either yelling or hitting as parenting tools but if you screw up once or twice your kids won't grow up to be junkies living under a bridge and it doesn't make you a bad person. Don't beat yourself up just try not to do it again.
posted by GuyZero at 11:30 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I didn't have (and can't really think of anyone I know who had) a "normal" family, but here are some things my fantastic mother did that I appreciate to this day:

1. She made me finish things. If I wanted to take dance lessons, acting classes, etc., once I signed up I had to finish the season. No excuses.

2. Instead of setting a bunch of specific arbitrary rules, she had firm, quiet expectations that I use my own brain. I didn't have a curfew and she never gave me speeches about not drinking or smoking or doing drugs. I just knew that I was a good person and was expected to behave that way. I would love to explain to you how she instilled this into me, but I'm still not sure.

3. Similarly, I never got rewarded for good grades. I was expected to live up to my potential, and I did.
posted by something something at 11:31 AM on October 5, 2010 [22 favorites]


When I think back on my childhood, which was overall a very loving and supportive one, there are really only two issues that stick out as major "missteps" my mother may have made while raising me.

-- She was extremely weight-conscious, always disparaging her own (very healthy and fairly slender) body. She would also tell me, as a teenager, that if I could just loose a little bit of weight, I'd be so beautiful! Perfect! It took me until my late twenties to make the changes to my diet and exercise that would really push me to the weight and fitness I wanted, and I sometimes wonder if -- had my mother's attitude been a little healthier -- I might have gotten there sooner. I had such bad associations with diet and exercise that the anxiety made me avoid dealing with either of them in a useful way.

-- On a somewhat related note, I wish my mom had taken a step back from her own gender expectations and paid more attention to me as an individual and what would work best with my interests. She put me in all kinds of dance lessons -- ballet and modern, mostly -- when I was a girl, and they made me feel out-of-place and awkward. I wish she'd put me in a martial arts class instead, which would have been much more in keeping with my interests at the time (obsessed with ninja turtles and Japanese culture) and would have encouraged me to learn good fitness habits when I was young.

That said, she was a single mother who worked really hard to take care of my sister and I, and I feel very grateful to have her in my life, and for all the things she did for me when I was growing up.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:31 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


My parents' mistake was in praising me for doing something clever instead of praising me for trying hard. They were very loving, were an example of (and instilled) much goodness, but I didn't discover the rewards of working hard for something.
posted by anadem at 11:34 AM on October 5, 2010 [34 favorites]


Yeah, there is no such thing as a "normal" family. What my family thought of as normal may have seemed strange to someone else.

I guess a normal family is one that everyone knows they all love and support one another no matter what.
posted by govtdrone at 11:36 AM on October 5, 2010


My mom has been a very good mom overall, and she grew up in a not-so-great family environment, and some of her challenges have been along the lines of trying to calculate how much to allow her three daughters to make their own mistakes vs. how much to worry over them, how to instill a sense of self-motivation (a paradox!), when to help us with things vs. when to make us do things on our own, etc. And my two sisters and I each have different flaws in how we handle the world — there are no perfect answers to these questions — but we always know that we have the solid permanent support network of the four of us. (Our dad, not so much, but that's a different story.)
posted by dreamyshade at 11:37 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


What does a good, real family look like?

A good real family is one where everyone loves each other, and where there are open lines of communication.

My mom was a great parent, but she had no idea what to do with a child and relied too heavily on Dr Spock when all I wanted her to do was sit down and talk with me (or let me talk to her) sometimes.

My grandmother (who lived in the house with us - it was my mom, me, and my grandparents as my family unit) was a better "parent" to me because she always - from the time I was tiny - talked to me in an non-judgmental way and until she passed away I was always more comfortable telling her things that I would never have told my mother, simply because my mother would have freaked. right. out. at relatively normal things. Which is not to say that my grandmother did not have strict expectations for my behavior - she did - but she raise me to understand the natural consequences of my own actions rather than imposing artificial consequences on me.

No family is perfect. But love goes a long, long way.

A parenting writer I read on the web has only these three rules in her home:

Is it safe?
Is it respectful?
Is it kind?

If a behavior fails any of these three, then its a behavior that needs to stop. I try to implement these rules in my own home, and I find that just about everything I want to stop falls inside these three rules.
posted by anastasiav at 11:37 AM on October 5, 2010 [37 favorites]


Hmm....on second thought, just to balance that last comment out a little....

A few things my mom did that I really, REALLY appreciate to this day:

-- She never belittled my (often eccentric) interests, no matter how incomprehensible they sometimes were to her. She never made me feel like I was a weirdo, or that there was something wrong with me, or that I should make some effort to conform to what my peers were up to.

-- She likewise never questioned my conviction that I wanted to be a creative professional, or tried to talk me into a more conventional career path. She encouraged my interests and did her best to try and find practical outlets for them, helping me get media internships in high school and enthusiastically supporting my decision to go to film school. I have so many friends whose families didn't take their creative work seriously, and I'm grateful to have had her backing me up for all those years.

-- My mom had to work really long hours, particularly after my parents divorced and we had to move several hours away from her office. But she always made sure to set aside time to spend with my sister and I -- we never felt neglected. We understood that she loved us and wanted to be with us, and never held her busy schedule against her.

-- She trusted me, even when I was very young. Even when I was actually being kind of a little shit and not entirely honest with her. Her trust in me was so complete and so unquestioning, that it made me want to strive to be a better person who didn't have anything to hide.

-- No matter how angry she was with me or my sister, she never said anything that implied she didn't love us or didn't think we were basically awesome people. She sometimes thought a thing we were DOING was terrible, and dealt with it accordingly, but she loved US and always made sure to say so.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:41 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and one more thing:

My mom often punished me by making me do housework (ie: washing all the windows, weeding the garden, etc.) Don't Do This. Its left me with the lifelong feeling that regular housework is a punishment, which makes it really hard to get the dishes done sometimes.
posted by anastasiav at 11:43 AM on October 5, 2010 [23 favorites]


My mother threw a brush at me once, because she got mad that I wouldn't brush my hair (I'm still a slob). She probably regrets that. It was a running joke that if my dad promised to fix something, it would take forever and come back out of his shop still half-broken.

Honestly, I know my parents weren't perfect - but I don't really remember a lot of individual mistakes anymore. Most of my memories stem from good things, not bad, and even the bad things seem more humorous now - like the time I was bugging my mom about some Nancy Drew books I saw in her room, and she irritably told me they were hers, and I believed her for like a year.
posted by muddgirl at 11:44 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Be firm and decisive. When you tell your child "no," for example, don't waffle on it or let your child guilt you into changing your mind. Kids need to learn that their parent's word is authoritative. On the other hand, say "yes" sometimes, too.

My parents were very encouraging to me, constantly affirming my worth. My mom had a few (cheesy, but it's Mom, so it's okay) inspirational catchphrases like "inch by inch, it's a cinch" and "you can do anything if you put your mind to it."

I was raised to believe in myself without feeling entitled to anything. That's a difficult tightrope for a parent to walk.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 11:46 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I had parents who did the best that they could and were consistent about it.

No hitting, no yelling. Constant love and support.

The only thing I will do differently as a parent is not get so worked up about small stuff. I lost a swimsuit one time and you would think that I had robbed a bank. I see it now from his perspective, but still.

Just be there for them, always. Everything else just kind of falls into place, you know?
posted by Leezie at 11:46 AM on October 5, 2010


My incredibly awesome family had its own flaws. My mom is quick-tempered and, as we got to be teenagers, would sometimes overreact to some thing we did, ground us for six weeks, and then forget she'd grounded us the next day. (We quickly learned the best response was to take it very seriously when she was doing it and then roll our eyes in private about it. We even teased her about it.) My parents' push for academic success also rolled into some negative perfectionism in me ... but the key point is probably that my parents were also the ones who helped me work through that stuff and supported me while I sorted it out.

My parents generally admitted their mistakes and errors, and tried to fix them when possible, and apologized to us like we were as important as adults when they couldn't. I know my family was as flawed as any but it's hard to think of the flaws because the overriding sense was always that we were loved, we were safe, we were respected, and mistakes happened but could be fixed.

That may be the most important lesson you can teach your child -- that you're not perfect, but it's OKAY, because you don't have to BE perfect. (But maybe I only think that because of my own perfectionist tendencies.) You should be as generous with yourself as you are with your child, and let yourself screw up.

You may also need mom friends who think it's hilarious when their kids try to eat handfulls of sand. :) I definitely need the mom friends who, when my toddler falls and bruises his face, say, "Oh, don't worry, this one time I looked away for 2 seconds and he got up on the counter and we ended up in the ER ..." It's helpful to know other parents aren't perfect and their kids are still charming and (in my case, with a toddler whose desires exceed his skills) alive.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:49 AM on October 5, 2010 [11 favorites]


Because my loving, caring & awesome parents thought I was a bright and inquisitive kid, I was privy to more knowledge than I probably should have had.

For example, were I to have children I'd want them to know money didn't grow on trees without having them worry about if/how the mortgage was going to get paid that month. I'd want them to know that sometimes people become upset without having them know exactly what Grandparent A said to Parent B.

I guess there's a very tiny sweet spot in between hiding information and telling kids everything. Aim for the sweet spot.

I'm not affected by any of that as an adult, I just have memories of being concerned when I should have been playing with my toys.
posted by ladygypsy at 11:54 AM on October 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Maybe I should clarify a little. I know all the "right" things to do, and I know what all of the "wrong" things are. I guess I'm just asking for a snapshot of parents who didn't do things the "right" way 100% of the time, but managed to be really good parents anyway - a sort of reassurance that imperfect is still okay. Not sure I'm articulating this very well.
posted by moira at 11:55 AM on October 5, 2010


I thought I grew up in a loving home, but the further I get from my childhood, the more I see how off-kilter it really was.

Consistency is really the key. How can you expect anything close to consistency from a kid when you can't model standards of what is expected, good or proper? I'm not even talking about your own behavior as a parent, though that is of course a concern. If you lead a kid to expect one thing and then take it away, the kid will not only not figure out what the necessary behavior really is, but will have a sense of uncertainty about pretty much everything else in his or her life.

There will always be exceptions. The best parents are capable of turning out the worst kids, and vice versa. Just do your best... but be consistent.
posted by Madamina at 11:57 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think my mom's main mistake was in trying to be too perfect and trying to devote all of her time and energy to the family. Take care of yourself, too, and forgive yourself for sometimes getting mad or not being able to give your kid that thing they want. Otherwise your kid might grow up worrying about you and trying to make things better for you.

Perfection is not humanly achievable! Honestly, if you're an adult and set good boundaries and love the kid and are trying (as this question suggests)? You're fine!
posted by ldthomps at 11:57 AM on October 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm probably still a bit to young to know the exact impact of my "childhood" as I am only a year out of the house, but I've found that in the past year and a half that I've been on my own, certain phrases, mannerisms and "rules" that may parents were adamant about have brought me to a wonderfully bright tipping point into the future.

Both of my parents are lawyers, so I learned the value of a well-constructed, well-researched argument VERY early on in life. It sounds trivial, but being able to articulate what you want and why you want it is a beautiful life lesson. It's all about presentation.

My dad was always the disciplinarian in the household. Instead of a screaming match, however, he viewed discipline as a pragmatic how-can-we-improve-and-do-this-better-next-time (again, a lawyer thing?). Being future-orientated instead of past-orientated will create a more conducive environment for making mistakes and learning from mistakes. The only time my parents truly were furious with me was when I repeated my mistakes.

And that last big one: Trust. Like Narrative Priorities mentioned, my parents gave me upmost trust from a very young age. When I violated this trust (oohhhhhhh teenage years and your lying, conniving destruction) they both had this deeply pained expression like I had just shot Bambi.

But you know what? Love that little offspring of yours. That's really all that you can do. You'll make mistakes, your kid will make mistakes. EH. Shit happens.
posted by allymusiqua at 11:59 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I didn't have a normal family and I think what was probably most problematic was allowing poor behavior to become the norm. My father was an alcoholic with a lot of anxiety and issues with rage. He had some really unrealistic notions about how kids should behave and how they should be disciplined. My older brother was very violent towards me and I really struggle to imagine being in my parent's shoes and trying to deal with that. What do you do when one child beats up on another so severely other than kick them out of the house?

But, they didn't do enough to short circuit this bad behavior. So, the occasionally fuck-up? Not a problem in the grand scheme of things. If you find yourself repeating bad behavior again and again, time to address that.

Also, this really rings true for me: My parents' mistake was in praising me for doing something clever instead of praising me for trying hard. They were very loving, were an example of (and instilled) much goodness, but I didn't discover the rewards of working hard for something.

My parents were also really supportive of anything I wanted to do and praised my smarts above all else. This is great, on the one hand, but it also really affected my overall work ethic and my own assessment of my abilities. My mom continues to do this with my little brother and thus, at 27, he's getting a second degree but has only worked for one year in his life and on weekends and summers he lives at home. He thinks (and my Mom thinks) that once he gets done with this degree, he'll start work and quickly become a millionaire. You know, because he's so smart. Well, smart might get you in the door but hard work takes you the rest of the way.

This is something I really want to work on with my kids. It's just so easy to praise them for being the wonderful little people they are. But, to be truly successful requires effort and striving. And that's exciting to watch too. I feel a tremendous amount of pride when I accomplish something that required a ton of work. Not saying it isn't nice to clever my way into something but in the real world that doesn't happen as much.
posted by amanda at 12:07 PM on October 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I could have written your question, and here are a couple of things that have helped me lately to realize that it's not necessary that you never screw up, but that those screw-ups are in a context. For instance, in the book Meaningful Differences in the Early Childhood Experiences of American Children (the source of that statistic you've probably heard about how many words kids in different social strata are exposed to), the authors found in their study that all kids heard "no" just about the same number of times a day. The big difference was that that was all the working-class and poor kids heard, whereas the middle-class kids also heard a lot of affirmative statements.

Likewise, I read a short report of a study on siblings recently (this was really helpful to me because my brother and I had a terrible relationship throughout our childhood and hardly any relationship at all as adults). It found that siblings who were close as adults, and siblings who were estranged, fought about the same amount as children. The difference was what they did when they weren't fighting: children who ignored each other when not fighting grew up to be estranged, but children who played together when not fighting were closer as adults.

So, the take-away for me from these kinds of things is that it's not about whether the kids fight or whether I ever lose it at yell at them or even smack somebody's bottom. It's about the overall context in which those things are happening. So, I look back on a childhood where we had terrible fights and then pretended they'd never happened, and that was very hard for me as a kid. Now I have kids, and we sometimes have terrible fights and then we talk about them later when everybody has calmed down, there are actual apologies, there are conversations about how to handle a situation better the next time, the kids' feelings are affirmed ("yeah, that can be really infuriating, can't it?").

These kinds of things have helped me get a picture of what a healthy family might look like, because not having grown up in one, I just didn't know, and the picture I created and wanted to live up to was way too perfect and could only lead to failure.
posted by not that girl at 12:17 PM on October 5, 2010 [34 favorites]


Here are the major problems with my upbringing, which was far from idyllic but firmly within the normal range:

- Conformity/conventionality was a virtue. I understand where in my parents' upbringings and personalities this was coming from, but oh, I didn't even realize how oppressive it was until many years later because I'd internalized it so much. Anything even marginally outside of my parents' stereotype of white, suburban, middle-class life was suspect.

- Stupid "lessons". My parents subscribed to the "actions speak louder than words" school of thought so, for example, when my mother was annoyed about me not turning my clothes right-side-out before I put them in the laundry, she began to wash them inside-out and then put them away inside-out. My mother was probably annoyed with me about the inside-out clothes until I went away to college. Twenty years later I often put my own clothes away inside-out. Because it was a stupid lesson. She should have just told me to do my own damn laundry.

- Kid stereotyping. My sister and I were sort of "tracked" early on - she was the athletic one, I was the nerdy one. Now that we're adults, that's actually completely true, but I wonder how much of that comes from our actual abilities and how much from us living up to our parents' expectations.

- We didn't communicate well (still don't, for the most part) and I think that hurt our resilience as a family. When things went wrong (and things will go wrong, in your family and in any family) we didn't have good ways of dealing with them.
posted by mskyle at 12:24 PM on October 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


Don't make fun of them, for anything, ever.
posted by aramaic at 12:26 PM on October 5, 2010 [14 favorites]


I think I come from a pretty happy family. Here are the mistakes my parents made:

1. A lot of academic pressure, which ended up with a couple of us getting depressed.
2. Refusing to recognize true issues (see mistake #1). This resulted in me having undiagnosed, untreated depression for a couple of years, despite many people saying, "hello, I think your child is depressed."

I still love the heck out of my parents. They were doing the best they could, and I know that they truly regret not being on the ball for that one.

Here are three of the most important things they did right.

1. Unconditionally love us. They didn't always like us, but they did love us and communicated that in words and actions.
2. Unconditionally love each other. They've given me a template for adult relationships.
3. They weren't our buddies. They were our parents. I knew what they expected of me, and I knew that I could trust them.

The fact that you're asking this question makes me think you're doing a fine job.
posted by punchtothehead at 12:28 PM on October 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


The two most amazing parents I've ever known (they literally raised a dozen or more foundling kids, had another hundred through their house over the years, fostered kids, donated time, etc etc etc) had trouble with their own two.

Several examples of "terrible" parents raised good kids just be spending time and loving them. Other "good" parents did "normal" soul destroying things to their kids at the behest of churches or whatever.

My take - showing kids respect, love and kindness trumps being normal every time.
posted by anti social order at 12:30 PM on October 5, 2010


not that girl, that's perfect.
posted by moira at 12:38 PM on October 5, 2010


I have a great family and had a wonderful upbringing. One thing however that stood out to me, was that whenever my mom and dad had a fight, or whenever I would have a fight with my mom that got out of hand, if she got really mad she'd just get in her car and drive away. I know now that that is how she cooled off and kept from saying or doing anything abusive. She always came back within a couple hours and was able to talk with me more rationally. However, the sight of my mom driving away always scared me so, so deeply. What if she never came back? She always did, but I still have these very deep-rooted fears of abandonment from something she probably thought was helping to diffuse the situation.
posted by np312 at 12:41 PM on October 5, 2010


What does a normal, healthy family look like?

Love is unconditional and there is no abuse. I was lucky enough to get parents who pulled this off. Life is tough enough as it is, and not having to deal with that kind baggage is extremely wonderful.

Mistakes - they instilled a fear of risk in me that I spent a lot of my 20s struggling against. They both grew up poor and both had a parent die when they were children, so their own lives were shaped by that fear of risk and loss.
posted by MillMan at 1:04 PM on October 5, 2010


I think you would enjoy this fabulous story from The Moth: Joyce Maynard, Love is the Best Love of All. (Unless you are Joyce Maynard.)
posted by salvia at 1:09 PM on October 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm another person who didn't have a perfect family, but feel I pretty good about myself as an adult, and have a pretty good relationship with my parents.

1) We did a lot of fun things as a kid. Whether it was camping, or having people over, or taking a walk to the ice-cream store, my parents (more my dad than my mom, but she did this too) made things feel fun and exciting, even if it was just a little thing. That sense of adventure and love of life is wonderful to have modeled from an early age. We didn't have a ton of money or anything, it was just having that sense of spirit.

2) Family dinners. Not all the time, but sometimes. Structure is important for most kids, it was for me even when I sort of hated it (as a teenager)

3) Goal setting and work ethic. This doesn't have to be in an overly strict way or anything, but modeling that will pay off. If your kid sees you working hard, going for your dreams, and believing in yourself,your kid will likely carry that with her.

4) Lots of communication and space for expression of true feelings.

Really, number one is the thing that I remember the most. There were lots of crap times, but having a childhood that felt full and active and fun has pushed me into an adult that also wants those things, and seeks them out in a proactive way.
posted by Rocket26 at 1:12 PM on October 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


My parents and I had serious communication issues when I was in high school. I wanted to know that my parents loved me and were proud of me regardless of how I was doing in school, and I communicated that by doing no homework and cutting classes my senior year. My mom wanted me to be able to go to the college of my choice and do what I wanted and be happy, and the words she chose to communicate that were something like, "Goddammit, Vibrissa, you'd better not screw up like this again!" ("screwing up" in this case meant possibly getting a B on one AP Calc exam).

But I did always know that my parents would support me in whatever I did and they'd do their damnedest to find a way to make anything possible for me, and when I went to the college of my choice, we all relaxed and stopped pushing each others' buttons so much and everything became easier. My parents did a great job with kids who were not always easy to deal with, and I still know that they are there for me and my brothers in a heartbeat if we need them.
posted by Vibrissa at 1:34 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


moira: "Maybe I should clarify a little. I know all the "right" things to do, and I know what all of the "wrong" things are. I guess I'm just asking for a snapshot of parents who didn't do things the "right" way 100% of the time, but managed to be really good parents anyway - a sort of reassurance that imperfect is still okay. Not sure I'm articulating this very well."

OK. Honestly my mom was sort of crap when we were kids. She was a single parent, working a professional career job with long hours, and she was definately more focused on that than us at points. She was pretty stressed out there for a while; she would scream at us and she would sometimes hit us, but not as often as she hit the dog. I have fearful and traumatic memories from childhood. The way I deal with anxiety as an adult is directly related to that.

But you know what? It sort of doesn't really matter. That was one part of her parenting and when you're a child, you get signed up for the whole package. She did things "right" the rest of the time, and every single day as an adult woman I am thankful for the gifts and skills my mother gave me on a very concious level. She is an extraordinary woman who manged to raise some pretty awesome daughters, to be honest.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:38 PM on October 5, 2010


My mom was never afraid to let me be me....even throughout all of my ridiculous-attitude years. She also wasn't afraid to let me know when I finally crossed THE LINE, and she promptly put me in my place.

After she died, I found a letter she had written me about how she was sad that I never became the "BFF w/ mom" kind of daughter, but was so proud that I never did (and still don't) let other people's expectations of who I should be dictate my personality.

My only wish? She had told me that while she's alive (also, I'm pretty sure none of as ever actually said the words "I love you")--be sure to let your daughter know that you are proud of her ability for independent thought and love her for being herself!
posted by Zoyashka at 1:42 PM on October 5, 2010


1. My mom's conviction that I was not just very smart, but a rare and special genius didn't do me any favors. I was arrogant as a teen; the later realization that I was not a genius really shattered my self-esteem. I think I would have been better served by my parents' encouraging and rewarding hard work, than by their raving about my supposed natural gifts.
2. My mom went through an aggressive health-food phase for the bulk of my childhood. It effectively taught me that food at home is yucky and bringing your lunch to school will result in ridicule. The corresponding sneaky trips out for fast food with my dad became special happy times that I treasured and waited excitedly for. I have grave difficulty just eating like a normal, healthy adult if I am not constantly vigilant about it (and I'm usually not).
3. Number 2 corresponded with throwing out the TV, which ensured that I was a good (though not great) reader, but also turned TV into forbidden fruit to be pursued at all costs. It's idle speculation now, but my feeling is that modelling moderation in both areas would have been substantially better for me in the long run.
4. My dad, who is exceptionally capable in a great many fields, let me off the hook about learning things I really wish I knew how to do now. Woodworking, construction, small machine repair, and general home maintenance were all things I hated to do as a kid, but could still have benefited from learning.

The really good stuff that a lot of my peers seem not to have gotten:
1. Truly unconditional love. From both parents. Often expressed, and always sincere. Seeing this withheld from some of my peers has broken my heart more than once; don't do that to your kid.
2. My mom has a gift for not talking down to kids. She is able to listen to, respond to, and dialog with kids as respected peers in a way that I have rarely seen. It was so valuable in my upbringing, largely in ways I am only now coming to understand. Though I really think this is a rare and strange gift, I'd recommend that you cultivate it to whatever extent you can.
3. Affirmation. I know I kind of complained about it above, but it's really the kind of affirmation that I was complaining about, not the quantity. Maybe try to vary it a bit?

Good luck! And remember: there's no right way and it's not easy for anyone.
posted by willpie at 1:54 PM on October 5, 2010


My parents were good, but my mother had a terrible habit of showing up late to pick me up, or at a few points forgetting to do so altogether. Any question of why she was late was met with "DONT EVEN START WITH ME". She had a bit of an excuse in that she was a nurse and sometimes needed to sleep odd hours, but 90% of the lateness was due to her own terrible planning. It really stayed with me, and I hated being late for social occasions. It just made me think about all the other things more important to her than us. One time, she dallied at an antique shop so long that I missed the entire Girl Scout Fair I'd looked forward to for weeks. There was just no need for that, honestly. She does it to this day, so I don't make plans with her if it requires timeliness of any sort.

Oh, and there were some standards she wanted me to live up to that she shouldn't have gotten so uptight about. She forced me to go to church until I was 16 or so, when I HATED church and then left said church. She wanted me to go to college so badly that it would come up in every phone conversation after I'd moved out, until I finally got my father to confront her about it. And you know what? After she laid off me about it, I did end up going back to school years later.

Other than that, she was good. My dad was the opposite in a lot of ways, so that helped out as well.
posted by kpht at 1:55 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the bigger mistakes my parents made was to often, often, often give advice, and let their own minor social anxiety spill over onto me ("shouldn't you wear a skirt like the other girls?"). In general, in their worldview, if you did the wrong thing, people would judge and reject you.

Even now, I'd often find myself trying to do "the right thing" from some objective perspective. The problem with that is, what happens when there is no objective perspective? This made things like finding a good relationship and choosing a career a bit hard, because I didn't really know how to hear my own feelings and I didn't necessarily think it was worth taking them into consideration when making decisions. I work now to stop trying to discover and then live up to some external standards of goodness and instead, to gain greater confidence in my own judgment, and seek a life that is even more exactly what I want. I watch my friends parent, and they focus on helping the child figure out what they're feeling and wanting, and to listen to what others are feeling and wanting, which seems like a more adaptable approach.

That said, while I struggle now with the downside of that aspect of my upbringing, I can't really complain overall, even about that. I certainly received many, many benefits in my life from knowing how to act properly and from being willing to subjugate my own desires to longer-term objectives or the social context. I think this is true of many parenting "mistakes" -- many approaches have their advantages and their disadvantages. To make it even trickier, it's impossible to know how any particular approach and its intrinsic upsides and downsides will react with the child's physiology and with life's eventualities. So, I think all anyone can do is to do the best they can and be flexible enough to adjust their approach as necessary, and of course, to create an environment that is generally stable, loving, and accepting.

* Correction to the link above -- Joyce Maynard's story about parenting is called Love is the Best Art of All.
posted by salvia at 1:55 PM on October 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


My parents would freak out/make a big deal whenever I got injured. This continued well into high school and caused me to miss half a season of rugby due to a black eye.

So, anytime I cut/scraped/dislocated something I didn't tell my parents, leading to some pretty gross infections and an index finger that is no longer straight.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:56 PM on October 5, 2010


My parents were consistently unbelievable in their support of me during anything I deemed a crisis -- whether a real one or just one in my kid/teenager/young adult head. They fought to get me whatever resources we agreed I needed and always let me know they were proud of me however it worked out. (Do that.)

However, their parenting style was focused on supporting me and letting me be myself, not in sharing who they were. It's hard to be part of a family where the people support each other but don't really know each other. There's a difference between wanting your kids to form their own opinions based on thoughtful discussion and example and wanting them to form their own opinions in a vacuum where no opinions are shared out of fear of swaying the little ones' views. (Find a way to be both open about yourself and open to them being different so you know who each other are when they grow up.)
posted by cranberry_nut at 1:59 PM on October 5, 2010


Some mistakes made by my very normal, very awesome family:

I am my mother's favorite child. This sucks. Don't do this. Even with an only child. There can be such a thing as too much praise, especially when it seems an accident of birth order. I am incredibly fortunate to have forged lasting, meaningful relationships with my two younger siblings who know how much I value and need them. It is incredibly stifling to feel like you're setting the standard for everyone else and that you are your parent's proxy for success in the larger world. It's also made going to my mom for help incredibly hard because my failures depress her and are somehow "her" failures too, whereas she will never take any share of my success. It's made for a very lopsided and strained adult relationship. My Dad on the other hand has always treated me like the independent, fallible human than I am, and is an amazing sounding board who doesn't let me get away with bullshit.

My dad doesn't have favorites, but he's not always as respectful of my mother as his partner as he could be. They've always had a touch of the Mr. & Mrs. Bennet dynamic with his placidity and her hysterics. We all do a lot more eye-rolling than is truly fair with Mom. It has given me a lot of thought about my own occasionally strident disagreements with my husband coming from a deep fear of not being taken seriously. This is a really recent realization that my Dad, who is otherwise one of my favorite human beings and my hero, has perhaps been a better father than a husband. Kids learn a lot about how adults should treat each other

Despite these missteps, my parents raised three amazing kids who love each other and are successful and independent adults. We were gifted a really bizarre sense of humor, were raised in a house where love, support, and safety were never in question, and we have a unique "unit cohesion" I wouldn't trade for anything. I have been more reflective recently about how childhood shapes character, so I really thank you for this question. If you're open to more "DO this" answers, I'll probably have more to offer.
posted by malacologist at 2:19 PM on October 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


It's funny, but if you could somehow manage to make zero mistakes, I think you'd wind up being a bad parent. It's VITAL that your child sees you make parenting mistakes. What's really important is not whether you get it right or not the first time -- it's how you deal with it when you screw up.

Let's say you could wave a magic wand and turn yourself into a parent who was wise, fair, creative and sympathetic 100% of the time. Your daughter would never see you screw up. Years later, when she is a parent without a magic wand, how is she going to deal with things when she screws up. She'll compare herself to her always-perfect mom and feel terrible.

Of course, there are major things you need to never screw up on (e.g. don't molest or beat your child, etc.), but I'm sure you have those things covered.

Let's say that one day you're stressed about work, and you take that out on your kid. Okay, that's wrong. But it's not the end of the world. Your kid lives in a world where people do that sometimes, and she needs to develop coping skills for when it happens. More important: she needs a model of how she should act when she screws up.

The were ways my parents were good parents and ways they were bad parents, but here's one thing I'm really thankful for: when they realized they'd screwed up, they would apologize to me. They would talk to me about why they screwed up. They didn't get defensive or try to cover over their "sins." If they made a mess, they cleaned up after themselves.

I grew into a person who is not ashamed to apologize and make things right when I screw up. And BOY do I screw up! Those people who do anything to save face -- who never admit they're wrong and never seem to learn from their mistakes... I always wonder if they were raised by perfectionists who wouldn't admit to being wrong, because they'd convinced themselves that being wrong was a major, major crime.
posted by grumblebee at 2:22 PM on October 5, 2010 [18 favorites]


My parents did a good job raising three kids, though the third was a tricky lass. My brother and I were generally pretty easy kids. My parents adopted my sister when she was young, and she had some tough years. School wasn't as easy for her, and she did some dangerous things in her teenage years. Dad wanted to take a hard line with her, Mom thought if she just loved her and gave her a bit more, my sister would turn out OK. My sister graduated high school and she's doing well for herself, but the disagreements over parenting were pretty bad for a few years.

And there's the split between treating children like kids and adults. My sister grew up as my mother's confidant, while my brother and I learned some health conditions our mother had been dealing with only when we were in our 20s, things she had been dealing with as long as we'd been alive. Nothing life-threatening, but still there was part of my mother I didn't know until I asked about it, while my sister knew everything that my mother was dealing with by age 7 or 8. Let your daughter be your kid until she's old enough to cope with bigger issues, then ease her into the realities you deal with.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:25 PM on October 5, 2010


My parents were loving, supportive, and fair. They remain my strongest support network and my father is one of my closest friends. There are two aspects I wish could have been a little different:

1. My mom wanted very badly for me to have the piano lessons she had wanted, but I hated them, and vocally. I wish she'd paid attention to how much I enjoyed drawing and painting. It would have been different to have art classes in childhood than it is to try to catch up now. When I have kids, I'll try to figure out what they love.

2. I genuinely wish my parents didn't care whether my romantic partners were from our cultural background, but they do, and it's caused us all a lot of pain over the years. When I have children, I will let them know they're free to love anyone of any gender, background, or religion, and I will mean it. Ultimately, they accept my choices and even grow to like my partners, but I know they would be happier otherwise, and frankly, that sucks.

But I'm sure that when I have kids, I'll make mistakes too.
posted by namesarehard at 2:44 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting question. It's hard to remember the parenting decisions that didn't influence you much as a child, isn't it? For instance, at this year's family reunion I listened to my mother advise my cousin (who now has 3 small children of her own) that she needs to take more time for herself. "We locked deludingmyself and [deludingmyself's brother] in the family room behind a baby gate at that age every Monday night from 5-8, and ignored any attempts to interrupt us because it was Adult Dinner Time," she said. I have no recollection of this at all, but apparently we got used to it. A few other thoughts:

Though not really a parenting thing per se, I feel like I've gained so much from my parents' egalitarian marriage. My were (and are) best friends and partners. That's shaped my outlook on life. It also meant an awful lot of "Daaaad, Mom already asked me that," and vice versa, as a teenager. C'est la vie.

I have to echo anadem's statement about praise for trying hard vs. being smart. It's the peril of the Gifted Child, and both my husband and I struggle with it.

To my surprise, I seem to have mostly gotten over the stringent rules about limited media consumption rules in our household. We had no TV besides Olympics, anything on PBS, the occasional football game, and Star Trek. This made it rather hard for an already awkward, nerdy child to find any sort of common ground to relate with her peers*. I still don't have many friends today, but I don't really blame it on that anymore.

*Why yes, I did think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were an evil, corrupting influence on American youth. Thanks, Mom & Dad!
posted by deludingmyself at 2:55 PM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you are a natural born screamer/not a good teacher, don't be the one who tries to teach your kid really important stuff like cooking or driving. Find someone else to do that stuff if you can't teach in a calm manner. Nobody learns and everybody is traumatized if you teach via screaming.

Let your kids grow up. TEACH THEM HOW TO GROW UP. Do not want to keep them "your precious baby" so much that they can never leave home because they don't have any idea how to get a job or even how to do the dishes. Don't whine and give them crap if they say, want to go to college far away because you'll miss them soooo much and how can you ever live without them. Don't throw shit fits if they don't come home every weekend either. When they're older, raise them so that if they had to function without you tomorrow, they could manage it (within reason here). Teach them about money, about credit, about how to get and maintain a job.

Also, don't treat your kids like they are your spouse or parent. Even if you end up a single parent and are so lonely you could die, don't do it.

The parental handicapping thing is super-important. I know people in their 30's who can't for the life of them figure out how to live alone (I'm surprised I managed it, but I went away to college and the folks I know either stayed home for college or never went at all) and support themselves.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:22 PM on October 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


There will always be some things "wrong" in a family relationship. The wise will become self aware and identify those faults as they get older, and work to try to avoid them in their own family lives in the future. You are already doing that, so great job. Striving to be better is a wonderful thing, but you have to accept that you will never be perfect.

While in my childhood, things were great. We had a nice house and enough money to go on trips and I felt safe and had enriching things in my life. But I am now in my late 20s, and I have only recently come to identify that our comfortable upper-middle-class upbringing was because my dad worked constantly, and when he came home, he was so wound up on work that he would drink to relax until he fell asleep in front of the TV. I have very few memories of him doing things with us, like helping on school projects or going to the museum with us, and the few memories I have in this area I believe were because my mom made him do them. He was never abusive, but he was very emotionally disconnected from the rest of the family, and I realized recently that some of my mom's obsession over us kids doing well was simply her refocusing her anxieties over the fact that her marriage wasn't going well and she didn't have the nerve to stand up to him. This upbringing has led to repercussions in how I have relationships with men and my own self esteem that I am working hard to overcome.

Do I wish that my dad had been more emotionally connected? Perhaps, but that likely would have just led to some other issue in my childhood to deal with today. I'm fine dealing with the devil I have, rather than the ones that might have been. I know that one lesson I have taken from my childhood is to find a man who is capable and mature but NOT distant, a man who is connected with me and is willing to tell my daughters that they are beautiful and that he is proud of them, and all the things my dad never did.
posted by CTORourke at 3:25 PM on October 5, 2010


IMO Tolstoy was totally wrong about the families thing.
posted by boghead at 3:26 PM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


It is admirable that you are working so hard to be a good parent.

Just remember that because you did not grow up in a normal, healthy family that environment was like a slow motion electrical shock. The electricity has been introduced into your system and is relentless in attempting to complete the circuit. And sometimes the circuit is completed even though you know it is there and have worked hard to prevent it.
posted by mlis at 3:36 PM on October 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have a personal story to back up grumblebee's point. I could easily tell you that I come from the perfect family. There would be fresh-baked cookies when I came home from school and my mom would listen to me and my brother talk about how school had gone. We would all sit down for dinner together every night, and then sit around together doing homework, reading, doing jigsaw puzzles, etc. during the evening. In the summer we would go on family camping trips. In the winter we would have wood fires in the fireplace and listen to music. My brother and I were both exceptionally high-achieving and well-behaved children who barely ever so much as bickered. I never saw my parents fight with each other in all the years I lived at home. They both had interesting and rewarding careers but both managed to be very present. I can imagine that to an outsider it might all be a little bit sickeningly sweet, but I would say I had a wonderful, happy, nurturing childhood, and I feel so lucky for that. I love my family very, very much and am still close to them.

But you know what? Even though somehow my parents achieved something that might be labeled "perfection"...it had its negative outcomes too. For one thing, I grew up incredibly ill equipped to deal with conflict. Even tiny little bits of conflict make me SO uncomfortable. It's just so foreign to me that I don't know how to cope! Similarly, I'm deeply reluctant to share important parts of my own adult life with my parents if I know they don't fit in with their value systems (for example, my atheism, or the details of premarital cohabitation) because I'm so emotionally invested in keeping our relationship sailing smoothly. And sometimes, when life is rough because that's just the way life can be sometimes, I don't entirely trust my parents to be honest with me about the things that are hard for them, and they don't trust me to tell them when I'm having a hard time either.

I know you were looking for stories showing that imperfection can be just fine, but I think a useful corollary is that perfection isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be.
posted by ootandaboot at 3:58 PM on October 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


I am... different. When I was younger, I felt I knew what my Mom and Dad did that made me this way and I felt I could lay the blame on them for it. As I got older and learned not only to just simply value my differences (just because) but also learned how well they suit me and what good they do for me, I am no longer quite so sure that there's anything to blame them for. I'd say I started doubting the "wronged" perspective when I turned 30. I am now 42.

An example: My Mom raised me to believe that every adult I met would be a responsible communicator and that it was my duty to do and be the same. I learned the very hard way that this was totally not the case and when I was younger, I felt deceived. As I got older and learned that I could not only teach by example but lead by example (as in, if you act like your expectations are completely reasonable - even if they're not - and demonstrate a skill in fulfilling your own expectations, you can often get other folks to also fulfill your expectations), I came back around to valuing the vast array of communications skills she taught me when I was a young'n.

There are a number of other ways I was raised up to be different. In general now that I'm 42, I'm pretty happy with just about all of them. I think that my parents did an absolutely fine job with raising me and I'm glad they made their "mistakes".
posted by kalessin at 4:12 PM on October 5, 2010


My parents did a very good job at raising me, but they made one glaring error; they kept me in private religious elementary school even after they knew the school was failing at adopting and properly teaching a good math curriculum to the older kids. When I got to public high school, I was at a small disadvantage in math. Fortunately they did not repeat that with my younger sibs.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:19 PM on October 5, 2010


I grew up in such a family. My mom used to lose it occasionally and yell or even spank (bare hand on clothed bottom, never beyond that, fwiw), but that never really disturbed me all that much, to be honest. What has been more hurtful is her tendency to type-cast us -- pulling certain traits out and seeming to make those who we are to her, despite evidence to the contrary. It still bugs me. One really great tthing for this, though, is having siblings. I get to see that she does the same thing to my brother and sister, and because I know they're not so easily labeled, I also know it's a failing of hers, not mine.

One thing I should mention, though, is that I'm also a (good but imperfect, i think) parent, and it's hard. HARD. Consistently an endurance test for my ability to respond to things in a helpful, patient, firm way. Honestly, sometimes tempting to just frighten them into obedience instead of (1) deciding whether I really need obedience here, or just want it becausse it would be convenient, and then (2) working toward getting the needed change in behavior in constructive ways.

So if you think you should be easier on yourself just because it seems like you're working harder than ought to be necessary, well... speaking as someone who came from a good, happy family, and so whose instincts are probably more in line with the (myriad) right ways to do things: it's really that hard.
posted by palliser at 4:47 PM on October 5, 2010


"Mistakes" my parents made that they still beat themselves up about, but that I don't think harmed me in the long run:

- using physical discipline (light smacking) as punishment

- yelling. A lot. Particularly during my teenage years. (This was due to then-undiagnosed mental illness: they got help, things got better, I got over it.)

- getting drunk in front of us (not often, but very occasionally).

- having us babysat by a guy who later turned out to be a child molester. (We were lucky, nothing happened. But they totally could not have known, so even if something had happened, I wouldn't have blamed them.)

- throwing things at each other, slamming doors.

- forgetting my birthday now and then. Or only remembering at the last minute and putting together a really pathetic cake or party. I don't mind. It's kind of funny in retrospect. And it didn't happen often.


Things my parents think were just fine, but that I really do still resent

- Punishing by throwing away treasured possessions. Kids don't have much power or much stuff. Taking away what little IS theirs in the world really hurts.

- Making it clear that they wished we had been different in ways we couldn't help - that I was more of a girly-girl, that my brother was more academically minded.

- Saying "I love you, but I don't LIKE you." MAN, that hurts a kid.

- Ascribing actions to malice, when you could give the kid the benefit of the doubt, that they screwed up and didn't mean to.

- Not letting the kid have any way to make amends. Hearing an apology and saying, "Sorry isn't good enough", without giving the kid any indication of what would be good enough.

- Storming out of the house during an argument and driving off, with no indication of where they were going or whether they'd come back. A teenager can deal with that, but it's scary when you are 5 years old and think mummy might be gone forever.

- Letting me get involved in fundamentalist evangelical religious youth-groups (starting around age 9) even though our family didn't believe that stuff. It meant I spent a lot of my teenage years believing stuff that put me at odds with my family and peers, and that was totally avoidable. And at age 9, it's not like a kid really knows what he/she is letting himself in for.

- Not ever attending ballet or music recitals, school shows, drama club performances, etc. I understand intellectually their justification that these things are really boring, and mostly about watching other people's kids, but I still wish they had cared enough to come anyway.
posted by lollusc at 5:11 PM on October 5, 2010 [12 favorites]


A couple more things I just thought of:

Dad feels really, really guilty that he didn't spend more time with us when we were young. But that's not how I remember it at all. I don't think kids count up numbers of hours spent with a parent: what they care about is having fun memories. Dad might not have spent a lot of hours with us every week, but when he did have time, we had awesome fun. He got down on the floor and played with us, helped us build forts, took us out for drives, and to the city, gave us rides on his shoulders, taught us to ride bicycles: that's all the stuff I remember, not that he wasn't there as often as mum was (if that's even true.)

And what someone above said about favourites is also true: don't do that. My mother made it clear I was the favourite, and it has irreparably damaged my relationship with my brother. It also made me her confidant about stuff I shouldn't have had to hear (her marriage problems, for example), and meant there were always secrets that I shouldn't tell my brother. Don't talk to one kid about the other, either, unless it's something you would say to the other's face.
posted by lollusc at 5:22 PM on October 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


There can be such a thing as too much praise

Of course, you need to make sure that you don't go too far the other way and have all your discourse with your child be criticism either.

My childhood had its ups and downs, but was generally pretty positive. One time though, after I had left home and was starting to make my own way in the world, I did some business with someone who also knew my father.

He mentioned that he'd seen my Dad recently, "He's awfully proud of you" he said. "Funny, he never says anything like that when I'm around", I replied. He thought for a moment and said "Yeah - my Dad was like that too".

And a tip - If you want your child to know how pleased you are with them about something - praise them to someone else when your child thinks you don't know they can hear you.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:21 PM on October 5, 2010


I don't know that I'd call my family "happy", but I feel like I was raised better than average. Especially considering that my parents had me at 21-22.

There are two things I thank Atheist Jesus for every day.

1. My parents set limits. They did not respond to whining or peer pressue. They had good reasons for holding the standards they held, and when they made a decision about something, it was final. This made for a wonderfully consistent upbringing. I also learned that no means no, you don't always get your way, and generally how to act like an articulate and polite human being out in the world.

2. Food stuff. My parents had a pretty hard line on junk food - largely because of my father's weight problems. When my dad decided it was time to get serious about his health, all junk food stopped. For everyone in the house. Period. There were exceptions, within moderation. We were allowed to eat whatever outside our parents' supervision (birthday parties, sleepovers, grandparents' houses). And we had the typical childhood stuff like birthday cakes, halloween candy, and occasional ice cream for good behavior. But by and large we ate regular healthy meals and snacks. There was one dinner time for the whole family, wherein one menu was cooked for everyone. Food was eaten at the table, preferably in a social setting where everyone was expected to conduct themselves like civilized human beings. I'm not going to say that these limits are the reason I didn't inherit my father's weight problems, but they definitely gave me a healthy attitude about food that very few of my peers seem to have.
posted by Sara C. at 8:11 PM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I had (and have) a wonderful family, and am grateful every day for my parents and how they raised me and my four siblings.

- Good things: Their number one priority was to make sure that home was a safe place, in all senses of the word. This meant no physical abuse, no rough language, and NO TEASING. As we've gotten older and have gotten better handles on our self-image and sarcasm and such, the teasing one has let up a bit, but my parents will still shut it down if things get too harsh or hurtful. I was severely depressed in high school, and I honestly credit the safety of my home and family with saving my life.

- Not-so-good things: My parents were so focused on safety that they never taught us how to work out conflicts in a healthy way. All of their arguments were behind closed doors and after we went to bed; if we started getting out of control we were encouraged to go to our rooms until we got a handle on our anger and could come out and talk rationally. This means that I am very slow to anger, but I have NO capacity to deal when other people don't act the same way; I shut right down when voices get raised. I don't really know how this could have been handled better, but it's something I'm working through right now with my therapist and it's been a challenge.

Also, my mom is a huge procrastinator (I think she has undiagnosed ADD, but that's just me), and is big on the last-minute-frenzy-of-work school of finishing projects. This means that I never really learned much of a work ethic from her, aside from "put it off forever and pray that you can pull it off the night before."
posted by sarahsynonymous at 9:27 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Regarding anger: but I have NO capacity to deal when other people don't act the same way

This was mentioned a few times in the thread, and honestly, I think it's something MOST people have trouble with. "Differing styles in expressing anger" is certainly one of the top things people end up in marital therapy for. I think anger is just a threatening/scary human emotion, and most of us have a very limited range of expressions of it with which we're comfortable.

I am comfortable with people who lose their temper, raise their voices for a minute or two, then realize they're shouting and go try to calm down. But people who get silent AND people who go on extended shouting sprees are EQUALLY upsetting to me! (I actually equate silent with scary, like they're sitting there waiting to explodinate!) I'm cool with "you're saying you're angry in a volume and duration up to THIS much" but if you're either over that volume or duration OR if you refuse to talk about it, I will find this threatening and intensely uncomfortable.

I don't think we should beat up our parents about this, or beat ourselves up as parents about this, because I rather suspect this is a universal human "mistake" ... even if your parents only ever expressed their anger in healthy ways, you are going to go out in the world and run into different equally healthy ways of expressing anger (even cultural differences can be huge) that are scary to you, and of course into a MYRIAD of people who express their anger unhealthily!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:51 AM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


I suppose if I tried to summarize the one thing my parents did poorly that I'd go back and change if I could, it would be their unyielding efforts to always be right.

Its close to trying to be the perfect parent, but not quite the same thing. It took me a very long time as an adolescent to come to the realization that it was simply not possible for them to always be right, no matter how much they wanted that to be true. It took me even longer (spilling into early adulthood, perhaps? hard to say) to really actualize what that meant in my life and how I could have a respectful, amicable relationship with my parents as an adult. Their need to be right may have changed a bit in the same time frame, but more importantly - my ability to see things as they really are has changed.

I think if I'm ever a parent, one thing I will try very hard to do is to own up to my mistakes with my kids - point them out, discuss them, talk about how I could have handled the conversation better, etc.. Seeing that your parents are just normal people and there's no such thing as the perfect family is important for a kid, I think. Helps them realize they're not perfect either, and they can't expect it of anyone else.

Ironically, if there's one thing I'd say to summarize what my parents did well, it was instituting the importance of forgiveness in our house. I credit that and copious amounts of grace for the state of relationships as they currently exist in our family.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:25 AM on October 6, 2010


Don't make fun of them, for anything, ever.

Ever? My six year old knows that if you say or do something dumb (as long as no one is hurt), it's game time at your expense. We laugh at him for doing dumb things and he has learned to laugh at himself. If we mess up, he calls us elderly (we're in our 30's). We are like tigers ready to pounce on anybody's brain fart.
posted by MrMulan at 6:51 AM on October 6, 2010


My six year old knows that if you say or do something dumb (as long as no one is hurt), it's game time at your expense. We laugh at him for doing dumb things and he has learned to laugh at himself. If we mess up, he calls us elderly (we're in our 30's). We are like tigers ready to pounce on anybody's brain fart.

This dynamic between you and you and your child doesn't seem all that bad at that age, and I have no doubt that you have a happy, kind family and that you all understand that it's in good fun. But people outside your family won't understand that when your child treats them that way. They'll just think he's a mean kid who insults people.

Several years ago, I was invited to spend some time with the family of a girl who was a friend of mine and who I was at least a little bit interested in romantically. She had a sardonic wit and a wry sense of humor, which I liked. I drove an hour to her folks' place for an evening with her and her parents and siblings. As the evening progressed, they all acted exactly like you're describing: It was game time at everyone's expense, including mine. They were like tigers ready to pounce on anyone's brain fart.

My own family dynamic has a lot of jokiness, a lot of teasing, etc. It's not like we refrain from making fun of each other. But these guys were just assholes - and they thought it was funny to be that way. My take was that they thought it was funny to be an asshole because, you know, they're not really assholes, they just act like assholes to be funny - all the time. After about an hour of being surrounded by people acting like assholes because it's funny, I had an epiphany: If someone acts like an asshole, they are an asshole. no matter what dynamic under the surface you think makes it actually a loving thing or ironic or whatever.

So I politely got up and told them I had to get going. They protested, since the night was young and I was clearly leaving way earlier than planned. But their protests included jabs and jokey insults. Because that's just the dynamic they had as a family. So I left.

Now, don't get me wrong. This was a strong, close-knit family with several adult children who were close and supportive of one another; a family that could say "hey, we're all going to get together on a Saturday night and play board games" or whatever and have everyone actually show up to spend family time together. But seriously, what a bunch of assholes.
posted by The World Famous at 8:21 AM on October 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


My parents are wonderful parents and I often - often - feel like the luckiest person in the world to have them as my parents. That said, they made lots of mistakes and lots of judgment calls that arguably in retrospect were the wrong calls. For example:

- They really sheltered me and my sister - very overprotective. For example, they don't like me to drive home (8 hours) alone and will go to lengths (fly to me and drive home with me) to avoid it. Granted, I'm a lousy driver but still.... The result, I think, is that I am not as independent and capable as I could be. They still do this and I'm 33!
- In a few fits of temper when I was a teenager, they said some personal, hurtful things that I still remember and wonder about.
- They drink a little bit too much.
- They didn't give me flouride or tooth-sealing treatments. (I have at least one cavity in each tooth despite very regular dental hygiene.)
- They spoiled us a bit in the sense that they gave us every opportunity they could swing.

This was more than outweighed by the constancy of their unconditional love. And the fact that they are fun parents.

(And they made fun of us lots - I count this in the good column because it was kind-hearted and helps us not take ourselves too seriously. Went both ways for sure.)
posted by n'muakolo at 8:27 AM on October 6, 2010


Thank you so much for your answers. I ended up marking as best those that spoke to my underlying question, but nearly all of your responses have been so helpful.

(Thanks also for the link to Joyce Maynard's story. Unfortunately, it cut off in the middle, and I couldn't find part 2.)
posted by moira at 4:05 PM on October 6, 2010


If you have iTunes, you can get the Maynard story from the Moth podcast and download it from there. It's free, but act fast because they only offer the most recent 4 or 5 stories, and they update it with a new story every week, and this one is getting close to falling off the bottom (second oldest I think).
posted by salvia at 8:19 PM on October 6, 2010


I consider myself pretty well adjusted. I was an only child, pretty high-achieving, and generally happy. The missteps, if you want to call them that, were all pretty slight. I was pushed harder into sports than I would have liked, and wasn't particularly good at them. Eventually, I found my voice in theater, and took to that instead. The push to sports was frustrating, but in hindsight it probably didn't hurt to have the lesson that I'm by no means the best, or even good, at everything. I still can't make a decent throw from home plate to second base. Football was sort of the same way. I may have been small, but I was slow.

For the most part, they let me pursue my own interests and find my own passions, even if they were different from my parents' interests and passions. I still haven't asked my dad to teach me to weld, which is a shame.

There was a push, actually an assumption, that I would get a bachelor's degree. That was a good push. I ended up attending law school as well, and there was another strong push to go straight from one to the next, without taking a break between the two. I don't think I have enough perspective to tell whether that was a good push or not yet. My father is convinced that I wouldn't have gone to law school if I would have taken a break. I think he's wrong, and have told him as much.

Anyway, I suppose some may disagree, but I think my folks did a fine job. Overall, they always had my best interests at heart, and seemed to think that allowing me to find my own way, with some gentle guidance, was the best way to get there.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:39 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your question brought tears to my eyes because I wish I could answer it and I don't really know how. I DID grow up in that family—I'm thirty-seven and my brother and I still sort of shake our heads in disbelief at our luck—but in hindsight I don't know how they did it.

I do know that there were books in every room of the house, none of which were off-limits. When I didn't know a word I was sent to look it up. From the very beginning everything was referred to by its real name (no pee-pees and hoo-has), and questions were answered when they were asked.

We had (and have) a LOT of inside jokes. Early on it became clear that making my father laugh was a grand goal to be strived for, and to this day it's one of my favorite things to do. It's so satisfying and feels better even than hearing him say he loves me.

When we did screw up, we knew it instantly. When we lied, we were caught out. When we broke something, there was no hiding it. There were spankings early on (the last time I think I was eight, and I had puked in a rental car), but punishments in my later childhood and teenage years consisted mostly of me punishing myself in silence for letting them down.

When I wanted something big—a car, money, a new bike, a canopy bed, a Cabbage Patch Kid—we made a deal. "You can have that if," "we'll think about it when." And then I would try to accomplish the "if" or the "when" only to find that if it was something real they already had it ready. There was a complex deal for paying for my first car, and when I got to the "if," when I was ready to pay for it, it turned out it was paid for, and I'd learned to save.

I screwed up a lot in college and right after, but they never stopped and have never stopped saying they were proud of me, for the little things and the big things. My mother saved every report card, every test score, every photo and every stupid drawing or letter I did (or at least the ones that stood out). She wrote my name and the date on them and put them in a filing cabinet, and every few years once I was old enough for nostalgia, we'd look at them and enjoy sharing smiles and telling stories and laughing at the younger me.
posted by kostia at 9:44 PM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, one more thing, and this is probably superficial, but my dad was an adventurer. We owned a camper, we traveled by car and train and plane, we learned the skills of eating in restaurants, sitting in movie theaters and real theatres, we were taken to plays and musicals, we had Beatles and Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan records played for us, we were sent alone to visit relatives, and so on.

And his adventurous spirit extends to technology, which I think has been priceless. We were the first family I knew to have a computer, the second to have a VCR, the first to have a DVR. It's partially about having had money, I get that, but there's something else there, which is embracing the new, embracing the experimental, and wanting to learn.
posted by kostia at 9:49 PM on October 6, 2010


People tend to think parents give unconditional love to their children (and they should) but more often, children unconditionally love their parents --- even bad parents. that's why abused kids can be so torn up when taken out of their homes. They forgive and want to believe things will get better with this parent.
And I think that's a hard thing about parenting---accepting and living up to that love. On the other hand, when you've mde a mistake, they really are open to seeing things change in the way that you've promised.

So, at the end of the day, if something you're doing isn't working, change it. Do what you say you're going to do, get help when you don't know what to change--and have the same faith in your ability to turn it around that your kid has in you.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:03 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had, and still have, great parents. Almost everything they did as parents left a very positive impression. The only things that left a negative impression - as in, they still affect me to this day - always involved minimizing some sort of upset I was having. There were 4 or so occasions on which I was VERY UPSET (even traumatized) about something I was experiencing, and to them, it just wasn't a big deal - so they treated me as though I was being foolish and silly to react so strongly, instead of helping me deal. Those few times stand out in my memory as the only times I needed help, and asked for it even, in my inarticulate little-kid way, and they didn't respond.
posted by Cygnet at 3:09 PM on October 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


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