Skip

The Bad Seed
July 13, 2010 12:04 PM   Subscribe

The paradox of good parents with toxic children. 'We marvel at the resilient child who survives the most toxic parents and home environment and goes on to a life of success. Yet the converse — the notion that some children might be the bad seeds of more or less decent parents — is hard to take.' 'For better or worse, parents have limited power to influence their children. That is why they should not be so fast to take all the blame — or credit — for everything that their children become.' But this is not the only family dynamic that is becoming noted. 'Therapists for years have listened to patients blame parents for their problems. Now there is growing interest in the other side of the story: What about the suffering of parents who are estranged from their adult children?'
posted by VikingSword (150 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
I always have a bad taste in my mouth for parents who run to the psychiatrist when they have a disobedient teen. Some even go so far as to institutionalize them.
posted by Malice at 12:10 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


But this is not a story of adult children cutting off parents who made egregious mistakes. It’s about parents who were good parents, who made mistakes that were certainly within normal limits.

Yeah, Mom, keep telling your sob story.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:12 PM on July 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


As the parent of a strong-willed 4-year old who loves to kill bugs, I find these articles frightening.
posted by alms at 12:15 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Much of the problem of estrangement is due to the fact that parents live much longer than in previous times. No one wants to live under someone else's tutelage for their whole life. It is crucial that parents at a certain point renounce any parental role in the lives of their children. That way, a true friendship can flourish.

As for the question of "bad" children, I would suggest that some parent-child relationships cannot be healed, and that the best a parent can do in this situation is to encourage the child to develop more congenial relationships with others.
posted by No Robots at 12:15 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


I liked the article. We are more than the sum of our environment. Our 'nature' traits interact with our 'nurture' environment in ways the are difficult to predict.
posted by teSiren at 12:19 PM on July 13, 2010


Interesting choice of words. Toxic, in the first article, is defined as something different from psychopaths, but are rude without (apparent) reason. I don't know much of psychiatry, but is toxic a common term, or a more modern usage?
posted by filthy light thief at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2010


All of these stories seem incredibly one-sided. "This angry tirade came out of nowhere and then she wanted all this money." "I didn't like her boyfriend and then she asked for a car". It could have been a fascinating article if they could have tracked down the kids and got their side in. I understand that would be extremely challenging but that's kind of like part of the job.
posted by amethysts at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2010 [37 favorites]


Surely there are just genetically a few kids who are "bad" – for whatever definition you have of that word. I never wanted children for a lot of reasons, and I have to admit, with some shame, that the possibility of somehow producing a psychopath/sociopath was always in the back of my mind.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


My psychopath can kill and eat your honor roll student.
posted by Babblesort at 12:24 PM on July 13, 2010 [28 favorites]


stuff like this is hard. the first link in the post starts off with a story about parents who have three children, 2 of them grew up to be decent enough and one was a constant problem his whole life. psychologists had suggested that bad parenting was to blame when they'd taken him, throughout his life, for therapy and evaluation. testing had revealed no mental illness. the author then asks "if they were good enough parents to raise 2 decent boys, and this boy has no mental illness, what's his problem?" and then posits, acknowledging that it will sound heretical coming from a psychologist, that maybe the kid is just a bad person.

it has a certain "if you've eliminated all other possible outcomes" feel to it, but I'm more inclined to ask "what if psychology, for all its benefits, shouldn't be relied on for answers to child rearing problems as often as we do?" I mean, maybe these parents were well equipped to raise children with certain natural inclinations, but not the ones this particular kid had? maybe other parents would have raised him differently, and effectively enough to inspire him to be less mean or whatever. I don't know. child rearing is fucking hard, and if I hear that otherwise good people fuck it up, it's not a huge shocker to me because neurosurgery is easy by comparison.

but even saying things like that is a tough stance to take, because we're almost quantifying people in a way i'm not comfortable with. is this kid fundamentally broken by inadequate parenting? is he naturally a bad seed? can he be fixed? I'm not fond of putting things in those terms. neither am I fond of putting parenting in terms of "fucking up" or "being good parents" or "doing a good job."

but you want to be able to say something to people in a heart breaking situation like this one. and it never really feels right to say "thems the breaks."

I guess I'm just trying to get a general ambivalence across, here. I think I'm pretty sure I hate that first article, but I don't know what you tell parents like the ones described, except... not that. not "he's just a bad person."
posted by shmegegge at 12:25 PM on July 13, 2010 [13 favorites]


I've thought a lot about this subject; my sister and I are like night and day. If I hadn't been there, I might not believe we were raised in the same household by the same parents. There really are fundamental differences in children. They might can be exacerbated or alleviated by the parents' behavior, but I mean it when I say our differences are innate. We never liked each other, even as small children.

We haven't spoken in over ten years.
posted by workerant at 12:26 PM on July 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


And then there's those parents who convince their entire social group that they're the innocent hard done to party, cut off by a hard faced sociopathic child. We're socially wired to wonder why people don't respect their parents, seeing it as some sort of dysfunction when trespasses that wouldn't be forgiven in a friend or sibling aren't forgiven.

If you don't like your parents as people and have no function for them in your life, so what. I didn't raise kids for companionship when I'm old and hopefully they'll be well enough educated/paid to move halfway across the world if they feel like it, no hard feelings.

There isn't an obligation from them to me, only from me to them. I'd like to think I'm accepting enough of them that they don't feel they have to avoid me, but if they did that's something I'd need to apologize for.
posted by shinybaum at 12:27 PM on July 13, 2010 [11 favorites]


It is crucial that parents at a certain point renounce any parental role in the lives of their children.

Agreed.

There is an overexpectation of parents that has grown into a cultural tendancy - at least for White People. ;) There was a time where the welfare of children was unimportant to society at large. Though the focus on children over parents represented a positive course correction, there has been some oversteering.
posted by teSiren at 12:30 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think as our understanding of the mind progresses, we're going to find that the same rule applies to the human brain as applies to moon-shot mathematics: a little difference early on can have huge repercussions later.

Of course, that only adds to the list of things to worry about: "Is this glass of wine going to mean my baby will grow up to be a shithead by elementary school?"

Man, I'm glad my genetics didn't include a strong reproductive urge.
posted by Mooski at 12:31 PM on July 13, 2010


Years ago I read the book "And I Don't Want to Live This Life" by Deborah Spungen. She's the mother of Nancy Spungen who was the girlfriend of Sid Vicious. He murdered her, then later died of a drug overdose. Anyway, it was a great book, and it struck me that Nancy was one of these kids who was just difficult from day one. Her mother took her from specialist to specialist to figure out how to help this sad, angry, destructive child, and she got such contadictory advice. "Do ABC" from one, then from the next "Of couse she's like that. You're doing ABC, how did you expect her to behave?" After Nancy died, her mother started an association of some sort for families of murder victims, and has apparently obtained her Masters degree in Social Work. Sad story.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:32 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


There really are fundamental differences in children.

This is very true. My sister and I were raised in the same house, she spent her entire adult life trying to be a good daughter, I saw it as an impossible task and cut my mother off altogether. I have no idea why I walked and she didn't.
posted by shinybaum at 12:37 PM on July 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


MetaFilter: My psychopath can kill and eat your honor roll student
posted by Doohickie at 12:42 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Children come, with a few exceptions, programmed to love their caregivers. There are tantrums and patience trying and bitter parts, but you will typically have a hard time finding a bigger apologist for any given human being than that person's child. Again, rotten children can simply happen, but the majority of parents simply cannot come to grips with even the most heinous of their errors, dwelling in self-delusion and martyrdom. "Doing something out of love" is one of the oldest excuses.

Which reminds me: fuck you, Dad, if you're reading this.
posted by adipocere at 12:44 PM on July 13, 2010 [27 favorites]


workerant: I echo your situation. My sister and I are both adopted (separate births, unrelated), raised by the same parents, and we have never been close. At this point, I've spoken to her a handful of times in the past decade, and seen her maybe once. My memories of her physically attacking me and emotionally provoking me during our time growing up together overwhelm any kind of brotherly bond I may have had with her. I wish her nothing but the best, but I don't feel the need to have her in my life.
posted by hippybear at 12:45 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't doubt that there are "good enough" parents who end up with "toxic" children. However, I also don't doubt that a hallmark of many personality disorders that lead to child abuse (emotional, if not physical or sexual) is a lack of awareness that one is not perfect. Parents who behave brilliantly in public aren't always the same behind closed doors; I have a hard time imagining most of the truly abusive, toxic people I've known admitting to anyone, "My own behavior pushed them away."

That being said, the answer to nature vs. nurture in extreme cases is probably a complex calculus of the two: I present to you, Lizzie Borden's descendant in blood and brain, if not in behavior.
posted by availablelight at 12:47 PM on July 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


I find this interesting and would like to read more in-depth articles about it. For a long time, I attributed a lot of the challenges of my childhood to how my parents treated me; now I have a son who is a lot like child-me in some ways (inflexible, explosive) and I realize that I was going to be a difficult child to parent no matter what my mom and dad did, that the best parents in the world could not have made childhood easy for me.

At the same time, I do parent him very differently than they did, and at 9 he is more in control of himself than I was, has better self-understanding, feels loved and expresses love--it is better for him than it was for me. I see that parenting doesn't fix everything but it does make a difference.

My parents could be among those who wonder what they ever did wrong--I was estranged from them for some years in young adulthood. I'm sure everyone around us thought they were great parents--we had clean clothes, good food, family vacations, a decent education, security. What my brother and I didn't have, though, was respect, affection, or acceptance of who we were. I could easily imagine my parents thinking they had done everything a parent was supposed to do and that I was a mysteriously ungrateful "bad seed" because they seem to have been blind to the idea that children need more than just material security to be raised well.

We have a young man living with us now who is the son of a friend of a friend. The friend thinks our housemate's mother was a great mom; she did all these perfect-PC/hippie parenting things like allow no sugar or video game, and let him have Playmobil sets but took away all the swords and guns before he was allowed to play with them. But he remembers his childhood with a lot of resentment and pain.

So, yeah, I would be interested to hear both sides of these stories.
posted by not that girl at 12:49 PM on July 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


stuff like this is hard. the first link in the post starts off with a story about parents who have three children, 2 of them grew up to be decent enough and one was a constant problem his whole life. psychologists had suggested that bad parenting was to blame when they'd taken him, throughout his life, for therapy and evaluation. testing had revealed no mental illness. the author then asks "if they were good enough parents to raise 2 decent boys, and this boy has no mental illness, what's his problem?" and then posits, acknowledging that it will sound heretical coming from a psychologist, that maybe the kid is just a bad person.

I also feel like it ignores the fact that parents often do, intentionally or not, treat their children differently.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:52 PM on July 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


I am a bit distanced from my family. I'll go months without talking to them and don't really wish to hang out with them. And it really has nothing to do with them -- they're flawed, sure, and we had our conflicts growing up, yes, but I don't harbor any real antipathy toward them as a result. The truth is, I'm just better at dealing with people in general only on occasion and don't mind long gaps, and tend to rankle if they push for more -- perhaps unsurprisingly, this sort of behavior tends to hurt me when others exhibit it toward me; I suspect we are all most injured by the things we are guiltiest of.

The truth of it is, I just don't have that much in common with my family, and, as is often the case, they tend to annoy me a little. But it's not my intention to hurt them with my absence -- I just get busy and can be a little absent minded for months, because I am sort of used to communicating with people every few months, especially as many of my longest friendships are long distance, and so we only check in on each other every so often. I suspect some of this agony might be a difference in expectation in how much time an adult child is expected to commit to their parent. And I suspect there are a lot of kids out there who push back when parents try to demand more time than they want to give.

We spend a lot of our lives with our families. Sometimes, we just need a break.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:55 PM on July 13, 2010 [11 favorites]


Coming soon to an inbox near me.
posted by Fezboy! at 12:56 PM on July 13, 2010 [13 favorites]


At the same time, I do parent him very differently than they did, and at 9 he is more in control of himself than I was, has better self-understanding, feels loved and expresses love--it is better for him than it was for me. I see that parenting doesn't fix everything but it does make a difference.

You seem to have had more success parenting a child who is like you in some ways, and maybe some of the problems parents have is when there is not that affinity.

And maybe we need to ask a larger question; why do we think the nuclear family, with its limited resources, is such an awesome place to raise kids anyway? Maybe a community of more adults raising a child might include people who "get" that child in a way their parents simply don't, and help them out early.

The crushing nature of parental responsibility is at least partly do, in my view, to its isolation.

(/takes a village, yadda yadda).
posted by emjaybee at 1:01 PM on July 13, 2010 [17 favorites]


due, dammit. Not do.
posted by emjaybee at 1:01 PM on July 13, 2010


Rather than thinking in terms of quantifying or labeling a child, maybe we should think in terms of being realistic in our expectations of them. My son gives me nightmares, of the "Is he in the house?" variety. Death threats and physical intimidation and attacks will do that to you, and that's not even talking about the years of verbal abuse and name-calling. Was I a perfect parent? F*ck no, in fact at times I was quite the dick, but what can I say? I provided for him, I tried to love him, I tried to set him on the right path as I saw it, and he lives to slap me in the face. I'm counting the days (a little over a year) til he turns 18 and I can say goodbye.

I have little fantasies of that day, cruel cold cutting smiling goodbyes, which will be pretty close to reality unless HE CHANGES. Because, see, my intolerance for death threats and physical violence is not negotiable. If that makes me a dick, then so be it.

My daughter, needless to say raised in the same house, excels in school, loves her parents, has friends, takes music lessons and wants to take ballet lessons and acts in plays.

If I'm to be condemned for how my son is, then how much praise do I get for how my daughter is? And how do they balance out? Not asking for either -- I know where I went wrong in a lot of ways with both of them, and I've worked hard to correct a very indulgent parenting style.

I'm trying NOT to be too defensive here. I hate that I hate my son. If there was a precipitating incident, a thing that we could point to and say, "Here's the core of that monstrous rage -- let's lance that -- let's fix it;" if there was a monstrous flaw in me that somebody could point to and say, "Change that right now," I'd do it or make a fool of myself trying. Nobody's come up with anything like either of those things.

My mother and brother remember times when my son was 4 and 5 years old where they just looked at him and said to herself, "There's something really off about this kid." My memories are similar. Before he died I remember my father just losing it with him, at age 3 and 4.

His current "label" is antisocial personality disorder. So what? Well, so, it makes sense in terms of understanding things that have happened and how they relate to what we might expect. Not that I feel like a parenting champ who just happens to have a psycho for a son...no, if I'd known or suspected (or had the courage of my suspicions) and if I'd known other things that I know now, our lives would surely be different, probably better. But is it a parenting crime to curtail expectations of a child who has constantly and ostentatiously betrayed every expectation since he was 7 or 8?
posted by bovious at 1:02 PM on July 13, 2010 [33 favorites]


Another patient told me about his son, now 35, who despite his many advantages was short-tempered and rude to his parents — refusing to return their phone calls and e-mail, even when his mother was gravely ill.

The metric for parenting here seems to be oddly and overly centered around material comfort and security. Maybe that's the problem with this--the parents who claim they "did everything" actually furnished everything except themselves.
posted by liketitanic at 1:06 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm going to guess this shift in focus began right around the time a majority of baby boomers began to think of themselves more as the parents of their children than as the children of their parents.
posted by Naberius at 1:08 PM on July 13, 2010 [16 favorites]


I almost sent this article to my mom, and then realized we'd get in a fight about it if she wrote back agreeing that she could not be blamed for how awful I was.

I was a pretty difficult kid and my parents didn't do anything wrong. I think sometimes there are just "mismatches" of personality. An easygoing, eager-to-please, fairly normal child with a naturally sweet demeanor probably would have thrived with my parents, who were not very structured but were very loving and trusting. I was strong-willed, very high-strung, unhappy, even manipulative. It didn't help that they felt very guilty because we moved almost every year and I had a visible deformity until I was 17. So I learned very early that I could always get what I wanted. I think, in retrospect, I would have benefited from stronger discipline. My parents are very nice people who tried very hard, but I think I would have been an easier kid to deal with for parents who were a little meaner and less likely to accept bullshit. I think I was the kind of brazen, convinced-I-was-smarter-than-everyone kid who had absolutely no fear of my parents, and I probably benefited to have a tiny bit.

We get along fairly well now and have since I was 16 or so. 9-14 was probably the worst. They think I turned out okay. But I absolutely was not easy and I feel bad about that.
posted by millipede at 1:09 PM on July 13, 2010


bovious: "I have little fantasies of that day, cruel cold cutting smiling goodbyes, which will be pretty close to reality unless HE CHANGES... I hate that I hate my son. Not that I feel like a parenting champ who just happens to have a psycho for a son... But is it a parenting crime to curtail expectations of a child who has constantly and ostentatiously betrayed every expectation since he was 7 or 8?"

Well.

I... um, er...

I just--

...words.
posted by ShawnStruck at 1:09 PM on July 13, 2010


From the first article (emphasis mine):

“We have racked our brains trying to figure why our son treats us this way,” he told me. “We don’t know what we did to deserve this.

There's the problem. The same problem that is at the root of nearly every problem. Expectations not being met.

You do not know what you did to deserve this? OK, what do you deserve? Why do you think you deserve something? What brings you to the conclusion that you're entitled to something?

And by the way, from the second article:

“I knew parents and children had fights, but there was enough love to come back together,” Ms. Kintner said. “This is your mother who gave you a nice life and loved you.’ “

This is code for: "We had fights, but I'm the mommy, so I have special fight privileges, such as the ability to play the "No Accountability / You're Supposed to Love Me' card."

Disclosure: I haven't spoken to my father in 15 years. Among the best decisions I've ever made. Parents don't deserve respect from their children. They earn it by being good people. And because that's what life is, they still lose sometimes. Better bring a towel.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:10 PM on July 13, 2010 [38 favorites]


emjaybee:

Kids need more kids around, not more adults. I suspect that kids do best when they spend most of their time with their peers, playing for hours with kids of many ages. Think of the way kids did before paranoia about molesters, etc. destroyed the norm of kids hanging out with each other in the streets, in parks, all over.

A few more sympathetic adult mentors would be a nice add-on. But the lack of peer groups and unorganized play is the really terrifying feature of childhood now.
posted by argybarg at 1:10 PM on July 13, 2010 [5 favorites]



If I'm to be condemned for how my son is, then how much praise do I get for how my daughter is?

bovious, your story is heartbreaking. That being said, I think one of the interesting aspects of the article is exactly that, though: if parents can be absolved of any role in the creation of a "bad seed" child/adult, why do we automatically give parents credit for their "good" children? Could that not be a genetic accident as well? Is the "bad" child the exception, or the "good" one?
posted by availablelight at 1:13 PM on July 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


I loathe that article about estranged children. You bring children into the world and you have no idea how they'll turn out, so you sort of have to accept that you can't force them to talk to you, and you shouldn't chase after them and keep bothering them when they don't want to talk to you. And children who grow up need to quit blaming their parents for everything and try to have a functional relationship. But all the questions on AskMe about toxic parents educated me about a number of ridiculous assumptions I had about parent/child relationships. Parents can be very harmful and they need to simply step away and let the kids handle it on their own. Everybody in the equation should do what's necessary for happiness, and happiness can't be contingent on the existence of a certain person in your life.

I feel bad for the bad seed kids. I'm sure they wish they could be the best kids in the world. I'm sure they suffer and wish they could feel like easier children, happier children.
posted by anniecat at 1:14 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Words of wisdom:

"A parent's only as good as their dumbest kid. If one wins a Nobel Prize but the other gets robbed by a hooker, you failed."
posted by anniecat at 1:15 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Parents should get credit for the quality of their parenting -- how much they nurtured and supported their child, how much they prioritized their child's needs, how much they loved their child, etc.

But, mostly, good parenting just seems to encourage what's already there, as does, in its own way, bad parenting. I turned out to be a professional writer, and so a lot of what can loosely be termed creative writing (playwrighting, etc.) I'm the only one in my family that does so. I mostly was encouraged by my parents, although sometimes, idiotically, they would discourage me by simply not understanding, or misunderstanding, what I was doing. Did their encouragement help? Maybe, a little. Did their discouragement hurt?

Nah. I write because I can't stop myself from doing so. There's no way they could have stopped me. This path was laid out for my by something else -- genetics, maybe? Both my biological parents were writers. Who knows. Whatever it was, it was out of their control.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:19 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


CPB, dead-on. I've had this discussion with several people, and they all seemed genuinely shocked when I point out: you,as a parent, are owed NOTHING. You carried him in your womb for 9 months? Great, thanks, and he owes you nothing. That feeling of "owe" leads to mothers and fathers guilting the living shit out of their children. You don't like this dynamic, Mom and Dad? Tough shit. You should not have taken the job in the first place.

If ever a job description for "parent" is written, the sentence that needs to be included is "No guaranteed compensation."

If you get a sense of pride, of love, of loyalty... well, that's yours and I am happy you have it. I love the heck out of my son and he loves me back. That's, in my opinion, a wonderful and fortunate thing and should be cherished. It can even be cultivated.

But is not, was not, and never shall be owed to me. My son gives love and respect freely, of his on whim and will. (I got lucky on that, by the way, because I have had some poor moments as a dad, but he, to his credit, forgives me so much more than I deserve sometime. and I suspect I'm not alone.) I took the job as parent, knowing full well that I would be sacrificing time, money, and most of all effort and getting no guaranteed compensation in return. It's harsh, but true.
posted by grubi at 1:22 PM on July 13, 2010 [18 favorites]


Bovious, your son has been diagnosed with a personality disorder, so it isn't something you have done to him or avoided so much as something that happened that you have to live with. I think most people here are talking about situations that aren't like that.

Side note: my mother was severely mentally ill which made her manipulative and abusive, something I don't blame her for at all. Also though, not something I felt obliged to live with until she died.
posted by shinybaum at 1:23 PM on July 13, 2010


if parents can be absolved of any role in the creation of a "bad seed" child/adult, why do we automatically give parents credit for their "good" children? Could that not be a genetic accident as well? Is the "bad" child the exception, or the "good" one?

For most cases, it's a combination of nature and nurture, is it not? In my son's case, I've had some positive (and not-so-positive) influence on him, but he's managed to recover from so much more than I could have conceivably influenced.
posted by grubi at 1:24 PM on July 13, 2010


"We're hitting you because we love you!"
"We're telling you that you're ugly and will be fat one day so you know the reality and won't be disappointed! We love you!"
"We would like you to learn failure so that you aren't spoiled. You have to be faking it, to get all these good grades. No one in the family ever has. You need to be truthful. Fail a course, it will be good for you, and honest."
"You passed out from pain and bleeding? You think that's bad bleeding? Pfft. And you think it's what that silly doctor told you about endometriosis? No dear, we love you, we're your parents, and so we know what's best. God gave you a condition that you have to support. You'll feel better, anyway you're just faking it to get attention."
(a few years of endometriosis later) "Why didn't you die after the burst cyst? If God gave you a deadly disease, you should have accepted that. I'm telling you this because I love you, you know."
(at age 24, exhausted after a week of translating French into English, since parents hadn't bothered to take the free community college evening French courses... despite already taking other courses at the same community college and at the same time... I dozed off in the passenger seat, to be awakened by this) "WHY ARE YOU SUCH AN UNGRATEFUL CHILD" *poundpoundpound* went my mother's fists against the back of my seat. "How dare you ignore your mother!!" screams father as he swerves on the foreign highway. "Uh. Do you guys need my help now? And could you stop punching my seat, Mom?" "I'M PUNCHING TO GET YOUR ATTENTION!!" "Okay what for, please?" "YOU HATE US!! WHEN ALL WE DO IS LOVE YOU!!" *punchpunch* *another few swerves as father agrees, loudly*

They wonder why I cut off contact. They tell all their friends how very much they love me, how they can't understand what an ungrateful, evil child I turned out to be. They have never accepted that they could have made any mistakes, ever so minor. I only wish that they had the self-awareness of the one doctor cited in that article, who says how important it is to accept one's own frailties.

Unfortunately, there is still such a thing as the sacrificial lamb, and when an unhealthy family — usually one with borderline or pathologically (as opposed to healthily) narcissist parent(s) — designates a child as one, there will be hell to pay if the child tries to shirk their "responsibility" of paying for others' sins. The related psychological term is splitting. (E.g. black and white thinking applied to children: one or more are an angel, all good; usually just one is chosen to be evil; all bad. If there's just one, it's easier to believe. The worst part is that the selected "sacrificial lamb/all-bad child" themself comes to believe that it may be true, otherwise why would everyone be treating them so badly? It doesn't matter whether it's true or not, because with enough relentless pressure, abusers can make it believable enough that others will believe them, or at the least, not bother to question them.)

I'm all for believing that some adult children cut off their parents for lesser problems. But it needs to be discussed with a lot more careful research than a rough, generalistic article like this one, which, as evidenced by commenters here, can rub salt in the wounds of genuine abuse victims familiar with the tactics of glossing over true abuse and cherry-picking their estranged children's behavior so it seems utterly irrational.
posted by fraula at 1:25 PM on July 13, 2010 [17 favorites]


fraula, every sympathy. I've been there.
posted by grubi at 1:26 PM on July 13, 2010


There will always be outliers on any bell curve, and the hell of it is that sometimes it takes an outlier to succeed. Life fills niches; that's the fundamental rule of evolution. Both unexplainable fuck-up kids as well as heros-from-nowhere are biological niche-filling attempts. We like to think of human society as immune from evolutionary effects because biology is beneath us; it's dirt and blood and semen and death and war, but it's the basis of who we are: the dominant life-form on the planet. It would do us well to remember where we came from occasionally so we can, at least somewhat consciously, shape where we are going.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:27 PM on July 13, 2010


This is the kind of thing that I guess should be obvious: if people are different by nature, irrespective of parenting, some people can be antisocial (small a) by nature, irrespective of parenting. (Well, one can't rule out that theoretically some other parenting could have changed that, but "irrespective of parenting as far as anybody can tell.")

You *know* some actually abusive parents are going to read stuff like this and go "SEE? THE KID WAS JUST ROTTEN."

But you also know there are folks out there who honestly did everything "right" and the kid turned out to be a complete jerk or worse. And they could sure use a break from being blamed for the bad parenting they didn't do.

I don't know about "toxic" kids, but I know a family where I honestly believe a downright evil (psychopathic if you will) person was born in a decent, loving, caring family. Like, "her little brother whom she resented mysteriously drowned in her care when she was forced to babysit him and, in the context of later events, the family has come to wonder if it was really an accident" kind of evil. A child who grew up to abuse her own daughter and granddaughter. As far as I know, from people in that family, that woman was terrifying from a very young age and nobody knew why. This was long enough ago that psychiatry never entered the picture -- this all played out in the world of family stories, fear, and stories of abuse coming out long after the fact as different people realized they weren't the only one she hurt....

So yeah. I think it's absolutely true that sometimes bad people just seem to come out of nowhere, not out of any detectable bad parenting. And it's important that some parents realize this, and stop beating themselves up. And other parents are going to use it as one more way to avoid responsibility and blame children for their own abuse.
posted by edheil at 1:27 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


My mom saw me as a bad child for many a year. I think a lot of this had to do with the fact that as a girl/young woman, she was cheerleader/dance team member/dated and was proposed to by many a guy, one of whom became my home state's govenor.

Whereas I was introverted, sullen, nerdy to the extreme, not happy unless I was in a book. I was ungainly and not conventionally attractive. I think she thought that if I just would try, I would be dating the quarterback or whatever the fuck popular kids do.
posted by angrycat at 1:29 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Some parents would also do well to heed the pedagogical wisdom that there isn't anything a child can't do, only something the child hasn't learnt.

There are parents who scold their children for failing to do something the parents failed to teach them. Programming the washer and dryer has yet to be proven to be a congenital feat.
posted by blook at 1:30 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Add me to the list of people who hopes her mom never reads this article, as it will only feed her sense of martyrdom.

I'd also like to see the other side of the story. My mom is active in her community, establishes a wide circle of friends, volunteers and goes to church and appears to be a model citizen. But as a mother she was absolutely heinous. Yet all her friends see are her, and all they hear is her side of the story, so I've long since stopped visiting home and interacting with her friends and family members, not just to avoid her but to avoid being pulled aside and lectured about how I need to appreciate my mother more. We've had numerous discussions about childhood, my brothers are also semi-estranged from her, but in her mind our objections to her are all inexplicable persecution.

This is your mother who gave you a nice life and loved you.

This phrase basically represents everything that is wrong with her way of thinking . . . Our material needs were mostly provided for, and I believe now that she did love us, but her way of expressing it was so controlling and twisted, her inability to provide respect combined with her expectation of total obedience, that the sense of entitlement to our affection and attention she feels is just monstrously off-base.
posted by schroedinger at 1:33 PM on July 13, 2010 [12 favorites]


Good question, filthy light thief.

From everything he says and does, my 22-year-old nephew hates his parents. He's stolen hundreds in cash from them, used a knife from their house to threaten a high-school mate, cut their book collection up into pieces, told them they're "shit" every day, and I could go on...

Does that make him toxic? If so, what could his parents do other than continue to love him?
posted by drogien at 1:35 PM on July 13, 2010


Interesting food for thought, but geez, this article was sloppily thought through.
posted by polymodus at 1:35 PM on July 13, 2010


Oh, look! The "me" generation is in a narcissistic snit because their adult children are sick of putting up with their self-obsession. What's up next, NYT? An exposé on how the baby-boom generation is upset because their adult diapers are chafing? An in-depth piece about perfectly manicured lawns and the thoughtless children who trample them? Children have been turning their backs on toxic and oppressive parents since we came down from the trees. This is neither new nor newsworthy.

What it is is shit reporting. Has the Times been poaching staff from the Huffington Post? Because this reads like something that was written for the express purpose of driving page-views.
posted by felix betachat at 1:40 PM on July 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


It could have been a fascinating article if they could have tracked down the kids and got their side in. I understand that would be extremely challenging but that's kind of like part of the job.

The first article was written by a psychiatrist. The second is sourced from the words of a psychiatrist (who wrote a book) and some parents (who might have been the patients of the psychiatrist). The first is excusable, as I don't think the psychiatrist could contact the children on his patient's behalf (I'm guessing). The second is pretty much a write-up about a book, with anecdotes thrown in to make it something more. Neither are what I would consider journalism (not knocking the post, just clarifying my understanding of the texts).
posted by filthy light thief at 1:45 PM on July 13, 2010


I've actually overheard one of my parents not long ago referring to me to unrelated third parties in such a way that implies I am in fact a lazy, good-for-nothing failure, that they did everything they could but that clearly I was just not a good kid, don't blame them!

In reality, I'm a college graduate, summa cum laude, very high LSAT score, putting together my letters of recommendation now for law school applications in the fall. I have never used illegal drugs. I have never been a binge drinker. I have never even once driven under the influence of alcohol. I've never had a speeding ticket. I'm active in my community and my church. I vote. I have a wide circle of friends.

I have had relationship problems, and financial problems, and occasional unemployment. That's life. In the eyes of a parent who wanted me to have a very specific sort of a life that I don't have now and never will, I'm always going to be a bad apple. They're always going to have that regret. And when they tell those stories to people, they don't tell them about my goals and my plans and my prior successes, they talk about my failures. Everybody has failures. Dwelling on them exclusively would make us all look like pretty sucky people.

That doesn't mean my failures are the product of "bad" parents, either. We're just different people. We don't get along. I'm moving on. These parents clearly need to move on, themselves.
posted by gracedissolved at 1:47 PM on July 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


I loved this comment on the NY Times piece (second link):

It takes a lot of courage to uncover the real source of a lot of that pain, and young people may not be ready to do that yet. In which case, their parents bear the burden of blame until they’re ready. That takes patience and courage on the parents part. Cheers to the parents who carry this load for a while.

I do bridle a bit when parents - however carefully - demand sympathy for their trials. They do necessarily have more experience & more emotional padding - albeit worn thin in places! - than the young.


I had a long, extremely rocky spell as a teen (I managed to be very studious and a total tearaway at the same time, which was an awful combination), although fences have been largely patched & propped up.

But I recall being terribly hurt as an adult when my mother said airily, about me, to another person present: "Oh the two of us completely loathed each other for years!"

I remember thinking: "But your loathing was much bigger than mine! It was huge! You were already grown up - you held all the cards & you must have known that it wouldn't always be like this; I had nothing except resentment."

So, as the comment said, cheers to the parents who know they have to carry an unfair load of blame and hurt during the war years.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:47 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


While I wouldn't call either myself or my parents "bad seeds", I still identify with this discussion somewhat, because I have nothing in common with either sets of my parents (both divorced, remarried, thus two "sets" of parents).

My parents are regular, "mainstream" folks who enjoy watching sports all weekend and whatever is popular on network TV and People magazine. This is not a condemnation, it's just who they are and what they like.

I, on the other hand, am a capital N, Nerd. I like Science Fiction and Fantasy books and movies, comic books, video games, etc. I am oblivious to sports of any kind. We quite simply have very little in common.

I love my parents, but really can only tolerate being around them for two or three days at length. Any longer, and I begin to get bored and frustrated. We're just different people.

On the other hand, my in-laws are fabulous. They're both highly educated, and my father-in-law is a nerd like me. My wife is a nerd. We all get along swimmingly.

I don't intend to cut off my family, but I do limit the length of visits.
posted by Fleebnork at 1:48 PM on July 13, 2010


"Some even go so far as to institutionalize them."

You're telling me! And all I wanted was a Pepsi, just one Pepsi.
posted by Eideteker at 1:55 PM on July 13, 2010 [12 favorites]


Death threats and physical intimidation and attacks will do that to you, and that's not even talking about the years of verbal abuse and name-calling.

One of the many lessons I learned from NAMI is how to set firm boundaries and limits when dealing with a mentally ill family member. Threats and abuses should not be tolerated: consequences need to be established and implemented consistently. In that class we were told to call 911 for each incidence of physical abuse: the police would take the mentally ill family member to a crisis center or psychiatric hospital for evaluation.

While personally I did not have to deal with a violent family member, one of the other parents had that problem. One of the mothers was threatened with a butcher knife after we learned how best to cope with violence. The 16 year old boy was removed by the police to a crisis center and the staff there helped in setting up alternative living arrangements for him.

You do have the right to protect yourself and the rest of your family from abuse, but please don't give up on your son: the situation can improve for you and your son. A NAMI support group can help you.

I'm me-mailing you.
posted by francesca too at 1:56 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had a stretch, in my "liberated" youth, where I was absolutely convinced that I'd had terrible parents who did me a great injustice. I'd left home for the big city directly after being expelled from high school in the middle of failing the tenth grade for the second time (in what should have been my senior year), and stormed off to sulk in a grimy little roach-filled basement apartment on the edge of the nearby state university.

It was a miserable existence, and I delivered pizzas (badly, and for little money), made pizzas (badly, and for less money), and worked as a DC bike courier (badly, for great money, except I got hit by a car almost every damn week), and briefly danced on the bar at a club now buried under Nationals Park (well, that I did well, but not for long), and otherwise felt like a bohemian genius trapped in Kafka's bad dreams, and I was convinced that my parents had just not done enough, or gone to bat for me, or understood me.

The thing is, I'm a child of the seventies, and of a school system that was a fucked-up, chaotic, experimental disaster area. It was well-funded, and in a privileged part of Maryland, but people didn't understand learning differences as they do now, and a lot of what made me different just made me hard to handle. I was mercurial and emotionally raw, hypersensitive to the kind of teasing and torture you get when you're hypersensitive to teasing and torture, and could alternately read an entire book in a couple hours and still fail to grasp a very, very basic concept that was explained to me with excruciating patience.

I ended up in Special Education (Yes, Miss Turnblad--Special Education!), which just felt crazy and humiliating to me, as well as being a sort of Fellini-esque carnival of the problem kids from my neighborhood, and I just couldn't fathom why my parents would have subjected me to that kind of intentional horror. I mean--don't you people love me?

It's the things I didn't know that get me now. There was some kind of idiotic requirement in Howard County that kids in Special Ed had to ride the short bus, and my mother made it quite clear, in a cornered-Wolverine-mom sort of way that I never saw first-hand, that I would NOT be on that bus. There were stacks of correspondence between both my parents and school psychologists and officials that I'd never even heard about, when the idiots at the School Board kept reclassifying me as whatever faddish thing they'd vaguely heard about in a trade journal, peppered with buzzwords and phrases like "dyslexic" and "LD" and "ADD" and "dissociative" blah blah blah and until my parents just said "fuck it" and pulled me out of public school to put me in a tiny, experimental school that almost worked, they fought tooth and nail.

To me, though, it just felt like one crazy thing after another, each more unpleasant and complicated than the last, imposed on me by my parents. Hell, I spent one long stretch begging to be sent to military school, where I thought the bullies would be controlled, because they have discipline there, unlike public school, and I couldn't figure out why my parents refused to even consider it. I think back on that little run of crazy on my part, and holy balls--I'd have been eaten alive.

I only ever heard about this stuff in passing. I know about it now because I love to root around in other people's business, and because I got nostalgic for my favorite teachers about twenty years ago and starting visiting, and talking to those teachers, who would hear me run down my parents and turn it all on its head, pointing out how things had really happened.

As it happened, I was in Special Education twice. TWICE. I didn't even know about the second go-round, during which my parents and the teachers made an end run around the school system, and created a fake "gifted and talented" program (concealed under the official umbrella of Special Ed) that I inhabited on my own, and which essentially amounted to a self-guided, free-form middle school great books curriculum, where I had the run of the library and six hours a day to sit in a private room, listening to my music on a cassette player and reading at my own pace.

As the wildfire resentment of my wayward youth and my unfortunate residential and career choices got a little smarter as I grew out of my petulant teen years, I started to pull back from the belief that my parents fucked me up, and the more I stuck my nose in, and the more old teachers I tracked down and spoke to, the more I found a struggle to deal with a kid who was just not wired the way most kids were wired. Some kids are just a little nuts by nature, and it's hard, from what I've seen in my travels, to deal, when the whole system is built to be a little monotony factory, stamping out kid after kid after kid in the same mold.

I wonder, really, how many of these estranged kids really did have lousy parents, and how many just had parents like mine, who played their frustrating hand close to the chest, thinking they'd spare me the guilt and embarrassment of being reminded that I took energy, patience, and attention away from my siblings because of who I was. There were times when I'd show up, pissed off that they were taking my brother and sister on a vacation that I couldn't attend because I was stuck working a damn pizza oven to pay my $105 monthly rent, and I'd just storm off, lurching out of there in my broke-ass Datsun, swearing I was going to pack up and move away forever.

"I was so angry when your father didn't stop you from moving out," my mother said once, quietly and with brimming eyes. "But he thought you needed to get out and find yourself."

In the crossover of old stories, when I've become more candid about some of the things I did back then to feed myself and keep a roof over my head, including a stretch here and there where I was living in an abandoned industrial chicken house on the Beltsville Agriculture Center, I'm more and more conscious of how I need to remind her that I am, as an adult, a happy and reasonably well-adjusted guy with a pretty nifty life--that it all worked out just fine, and that I am what I am because of the path I took getting here.

There are always bad parents, and incorrigible, born-damaged kids, but I suspect more of us who think we had a terrible, unbearable childhood might find it was more fun and amazing than we thought it was at the time, with a little perspective.

"Good lord, Joe, you bitch a lot for a guy who had this wild, happy John Irving family life," said the Space Cowboy, a guy I had a thing with, a million years ago, hearing me complain that my mother was driving me crazy with nagging about her damn computer, that's not working right, and will never work right.

I thought of Cowboy and his life with his untreated, unwell mother, who'd pin a note on his shirt at six, reading "Please allow Cowboy to buy beer and cigarettes for me, thank you, Mrs. Cowboy," and send him off to the corner store in Chicago for a fix while she was crashed out on the couch on Valium, and man--I can be such a fucking dick sometimes.

The thing is, I wouldn't have the patience for my ridiculous extremes, even knowing what I know about why I work the way I work. Heck, I can barely keep from running away when the dog brings me her toys and wants to play when I'm busy (for the record, I do surrender, but that's my pup). Why I thought that they should have had more than I have at the age they were when they were rearing me is probably just some version of the in-built belief we have that our parents are supposed to be supermen, and more than just people like us, but older.

I had a terrible childhood, with awful parents who did me wrong, but I've rewritten that piece of my own mythology, based on the prevailing research. I wonder how far out of the norm I fall for people convinced their childhood was an awful, unfair time.
posted by sonascope at 1:58 PM on July 13, 2010 [79 favorites]


I do bridle a bit when parents - however carefully - demand sympathy for their trials.

Hence my view that they need to get over themselves. "Parenthood is hard." But, oh, well.
posted by grubi at 1:59 PM on July 13, 2010


I'm, er, going to buck some of the comments and say I do owe my parents. I'm not a parent, as it happens. But when I think back to what my parents did - the time, love, care, sacrifice - financial and otherwise, the patience as I screwed up things small and large, tested their patience and came out the other side. That's worth something. They've never said I owe them, but I suppose that's the point.

I don't see this as the me generation demanding loyalty, or love, or respect.

If anything, I see it the me generation as the one who thinks that after 18 odd years of being supported and looked after, adulthood means having the liberty to tell your folks to get lost if you choose.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:01 PM on July 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


bovious: Before he died I remember my father just losing it with him, at age 3 and 4...
...is it a parenting crime to curtail expectations of a child who has constantly and ostentatiously betrayed every expectation since he was 7 or 8?


Trauma isn't just caused by parents. And it isn't just about physical violence. It can also result from words, expectations and attitudes, or even lack of attention -- anything that the child perceives as traumatic in the formative years. In this case, it sounds like the grandfather "losing it" on a 3-4-year-old might bear some responsibility. One wonders how often this happened.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:04 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Good parents with toxic children. My god. What a bunch of crap. No, I don't think I can be an active part of this conversation, it hits too close to home for me.

I'll just say that it's no picnic being estranged from your parents. It's a choice that I made because my family is unbearably neurotic. The past is this big, awful thing that we can't talk about. And if we did talk about it, nothing good would come of it. Anger, crying, and old hatreds. And the fact that it wouldn't really accomplish anything. Some wounds cannot be healed. And I can't talk to my family while trying to ignore the past, it feels fake, phony, disingenuous. Yes, I know my father wants a relationship with me, but he has his own life now, a new wife, a stepdaughter who was never abused by he and his late first wife. I don't want to mess with their life. He seems mostly happy. Does it hurt to not return his phone calls or text messages? Yes it does. But its for the good of both of us, whether he realizes it or not.

Toxic children. What a fucking load of crap. "Oh, won't someone please think about the parents." I vomit on this psychobabble bullshit.
posted by Sloop John B at 2:07 PM on July 13, 2010 [9 favorites]


The past is this big, awful thing that we can't talk about. And if we did talk about it, nothing good would come of it.

This.

This.

A thousand times, this.
posted by felix betachat at 2:12 PM on July 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Not to sound like I am minimizing what you are saying by not focusing on your content, Sloop John B, because I appreciate the anger is comes from, but "I vomit on this psychobabble bullshit" is absolutely one of the greatest phrases I have ever heard.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:13 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm, er, going to buck some of the comments and say I do owe my parents.

That's fine. That's your decision; not theirs. I owe my parents to some degree, but I have no right to expect my son to pay me back for anything. There's a bit of difference.
posted by grubi at 2:19 PM on July 13, 2010


I can understand those here with bad/abusive parents who react negatively to this kind of thinking, but parents are far from the only influence on a kid. You can have good parents but other bad influences that cause "toxic" or other behaviors (violence from another family member / friend / etc, loss of a parent or sibling, etc).

That being said, my ex-wife's parents were the type who were both horribly abusive and would read this article and say "yeah, why doesn't she love us? we did so much for her!". I don't think she could read this article in a neutral way.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:35 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


The view that my parents did an awesome job by providing material comforts alone, is the most infuriating and heart-breaking thing I have had to fight about on my end. My younger sister got it worse than me - she's a very social and emotional person, who needed support our parents weren't capable of providing. And now she's the "bad, ungrateful seed who can't appreciate all the sacrifices made for her." No amount of later praise could erase the screaming matches consisting of "How DARE you suggest that you're not getting enough love?!" It makes me so angry, despite the great relationship I have with them now. How can some people be so disillusioned about what they're doing to their kids?
posted by Tequila Mockingbird at 3:18 PM on July 13, 2010


I find the label "toxic child" repellent. Children who are just "bad" ?? seriously ??

I've read a study that says of those serial killers who could be tested, all had brain damage, from abuse of accidents at birth or in childhood.

People have temperaments, elements of personality that combine in rich, interesting, and sometimes quite difficult ways. In my experience, more intense personalities are often paired with intense creativity and/or intelligence.

I have a child who was really difficult from early on, and I had a spouse who sabotaged my every move. I'm a pretty good parent, but this kid was really tough to raise. But toxic? That's not how parenting works.
posted by Mom at 3:18 PM on July 13, 2010


Anything and everything to do with parenting, especially if we're going to discuss "blame" opens old wounds and turns every story into Rashomon.

So now I never assume, and I think this article approaches something like an enlightened conversation, but never really starts one.

When I see dysfunction erupt in a family that I'm not privy to, I've learned to resist accepting other people's interpretations of what, exactly, is happening (that kid is horrible! Those parents are too strict/not strict enough!). You don't know, and you can't know, what it's like if you don't live there.

Right now in my family? My sister's children's lives have mostly gone in the crapper. She says they're just bad kids who do awful things. All of us wonder if her husband, who is a gigantic jerk, isn't emotionally abusive or worse. The kids stick very close to her even though they're grown, but refuse to discuss why they're doing drugs or keep having babies they can't afford. Or both. She takes care of them but screams at them a lot too.

But we don't know. We can't know. We don't know why it went wrong, we don't know if it's abuse or mental illness or sheer perverse hatred, or what. We don't know and we can't fix it, so we just stand on the sidelines and wonder if it will end, or if the babies will carry it forward too. We've all had lots of opinions about whose to blame over the years, but it turns out that's a completely useless game to play.
posted by emjaybee at 3:18 PM on July 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


My kids are getting more independent every day. They've just started crossing the street by themselves, albeit in a park setting where the traffic is rare and slow. Soon they'll do it on busy streets, and then they'll do it without me when they're off doing whatever they choose to do.

And me, I teach them how to do it. They don't ask me to; they'd happily run across the street without looking. But they're my responsibility, by my choice, and so I'm going to teach them not to get themselves killed, give them a tool, a life skill.

Am I doing this because I want to invest in them, so they pay me back later? Well, sure -- but I want them to pay me back by not getting themselves killed by crossing the street without looking. That rewards me directly, because I'd be sad as hell if it happened.

That's not something they owe me, though. If they get killed crossing a street, they're the one who suffers most, and the impact on me is secondary and shouldn't be part of their concern. The worry when they cross the street is mine to bear, the suffering if they get killed is mine to bear, and I took that on when I decided to have kids.

Hey, for all I know, they'll blatantly ignore my advice someday. They'll run across without looking to taunt me, or for sport. But that's their choice to make, and they're risking something far worse than I'd suffer when they do it. Once they're old enough to make such choices, the choices are theirs to make, and it has nothing to do with me.

Ultimately, I only owe one thing to my kids: to be there when they need me, and teach them what I can, and facilitate what I can, until they don't want and/or need me any more. And what do they owe me? Just one thing: to listen and learn and try every day until they're old enough to choose for themselves what to listen to, and learn, and try. There's no hard cutoff age where it transitions, of course; it's a gradual process, and sometimes things regress. But it's a process they're committed to by virtue of being alive and young, and that I'm committed to because I chose to be, and someday we'll realize we've parted ways without noticing.

When that happens, I hope my kids and I all turn, look at each other, and realize we're happy to come back to each other voluntarily from time to time. Fingers crossed. Welcome to parenting.

note: copy this comment 30,000 times or more, and in each copy replace "crossing the street" with some other random life skill, and that's the nature and scope of parenting, really.
posted by davejay at 3:26 PM on July 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


My usual anecdotal response:

Full disclosure: I scared my parents as a kid. I was an obsessive-compulsive firebug who hit people, stole, and damaged things. When I was old enough, I started drinking. My sister and brother are pleasant, hard-working, slightly depressed characters who rarely cause any trouble. My family is still a little scared of me, though I've been a (comparatively) surprisingly well-behaved and conventional person for the last thirty years.

I don't think we are completely formed by our childhood. I do think we are somewhat born with a personality, and that we have some choice over how we turn out. And I do think we have some responsibility to our parents as a society. It's part of how the social compact of a community works: parents agree to raise children, and children agree to at least stay in touch, look in on them, and drive them to the grocery store. Otherwise you end up with everyone being euthanized or at least living under a bridge. Or on Social Security with everyone complaining about the tax rate.
posted by Peach at 3:28 PM on July 13, 2010


My mother and brother remember times when my son was 4 and 5 years old where they just looked at him and said to herself, "There's something really off about this kid." My memories are similar. Before he died I remember my father just losing it with him, at age 3 and 4.

I'm sorry Bovious but letting your father "lose it" with your three or four year old is not the way to deal with a 3 or 4 year old. And I would bet that your son was aware when his relatives (your mother and brother) thought that there was something off about him at the age of four or five as well. Imagine how you would feel if your relatives were staring at you like that.

My son, who was later diagnosed with autism, tried to strangle another little boy at the age of two. The other little boy had marks on his neck from my son's hands. I spent the next three years spending 40 hours a week (while still holding down a full time job) shuttling him to various clinics for ABA and floor time services. He's now mainstreamed as an elementary school student and ALWAYS keeps his hands and feet to himself.

I don't know if there's anything you could have done that would have helped your child. Maybe there isn't. But if my dad "lost it" with my three year old or my relatives looked at him like that, I would have been estranged from them. Not my son.

The best advice I ever got for dealing with my difficult son? A therapist working with us told me that when my son disregulated the best thing I could do was to keep my emotions out of it. That has helped enormously throughout the years.
posted by cjets at 3:30 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


[snip]

You know, I'm getting smarter about this whole posting-while-emotional thing. On the other hand, either I'm completely prescient or my mother reads Mefi, because this did end up in my inbox about an hour ago.

Hi, Mom! Still not ready to try again. Have a nice life.
posted by Fezboy! at 3:38 PM on July 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


the proles don't want it

Again, Obama did beat McCain, proving that at least some proles do, in fact, want it.
posted by No Robots at 3:56 PM on July 13, 2010


Well, I didn't ask to be born! So there is a limit to how grateful I can be for the minimally adequate (if even that) parenting I received from people who, after all, could have used condoms or had a flipping abortion. And the 16 years I lived with them and socialized with them and did what they wanted (more or less) is a lot more than they deserved.

So no, I don't feel selfish for cutting them off. If I had to do it all again, I'd have done it earlier.

This is horrendously inconsiderate advice, by the way:

He advises them to continue weekly letters, e-mail messages or phone calls even when they are rejected, and to be generous in taking responsibility for their mistakes — even if they did not seem like mistakes at the time.

Yes, please keep calling and writing and emailing after they have made it clear that they don't want to talk to you. Brilliant idea.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:15 PM on July 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


Self-aware, decent parents with an asshole kid will read this article and sigh.

Asshole parents with a decent kid will read this article and forward it to their "toxic" child SEE YOU ARE TOXIC SOCIOPATH THAT'S WHY YOU DON'T CALL ME LOVE MOM.
posted by benzenedream at 4:21 PM on July 13, 2010 [18 favorites]


Huh. I'm really torn on this. Don't we owe our parents something?

Far too many elderly waste away in nursing homes in this country. Shouldn't we care for them... because they're our parents and they're elderly? Do we just expect them to come up with all the resources they'll need when their old? That kind of smacks of all the nastiness of American-style consumerism, glorifying the young, dishonoring our ancestors, all the nasty stuff that's kind of destroyed our sense of respect for the elderly.

I can go both ways on this, but no matter how terrible my mom treats me or how nasty she gets when she's elderly, I'll die before I see her all alone in some budget nursing home.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 4:31 PM on July 13, 2010 [13 favorites]


To benzenedream - you're absolutely right - about the second thing. Can't speak to the first.

BTW the original NYT article has the most comments I've ever seen:

1,538 at last count. Forget which of them is mine.
posted by etherist at 4:32 PM on July 13, 2010


We should care for all people. Period, the end. Everyone should have their basic needs met, including the opportunity to participate in a stable and healthy community.

"Shouldn't we care for them... because they're our parents and they're elderly?"

Huh. I am a big fan of fulfilling my obligations but I don't see those going beyond the basic obligation that I have to any person. My parents made me. They didn't torture me* or abandon me to starve on the street, so I had to live under their rules, in their house, and tolerate whatever they did to me. I never agreed to this before it happened and I never asked for them to be my parents. In fact, for a significant portion of my life I wished I had never been born at all.

How and when did they earn a permanent right to my time and energy?


*this is subjective, of course
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:46 PM on July 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Gotta say, before I read this and the subsequent comments, I thought I was pretty fucked up on my outlook on life, myself, those around me, and my relationship with my parents.

But, after reading comments from a pretty impressive crossection of MF, my emotional state is pretty solid, my parents didn't fuck me up that much, and I really feel like giving them a call - something that I already do on a relatively regular basis.

I feel sorry for those of you that seem to have burned bridges and maintained the angerof adolescence. Honestly, I hope you are all young - with a good amount of time to reflect, rethink and restart your relationship with your parents. And if you aren't, may you still find time to forgive and move on.

It took me a few years, but I'm glad I did it.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:45 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey, I'm 58 and I seem to have forgiven my father for being an immature, moderately paranoid, people-user. It can happen. Of course, he's over 80, has prostate cancer, and is slightly befuddled, so it was easy.
posted by Peach at 5:50 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I feel sorry for those of you that seem to have burned bridges and maintained the angerof adolescence"

Maybe you were an angsty adolescent, and that's the extent of it for you, but for a lot of us it is a lot more than that, and you come off as dismissive.

I suppose I'll consider forgiving and possibly reconciling when the damage stops being done. It'll take me at least 5, probably 10 years to be done paying off the loans that were taken out in my name, fraudulently. 6 years for my credit report to recover. Maybe some day I'll stop having flashbacks that are triggered by things like making the bed or having my husband cook me dinner. That would be nice.

Glad you have a better relationship with your parents now.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:00 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's not a contest.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 6:05 PM on July 13, 2010 [4 favorites]



When I see dysfunction erupt in a family that I'm not privy to, I've learned to resist accepting other people's interpretations of what, exactly, is happening (that kid is horrible! Those parents are too strict/not strict enough!). You don't know, and you can't know, what it's like if you don't live there.

QFT.
I'm almost entirely sure that this thread isn't the place to point any kind of fingers at the parenting technique of anybody else in the thread, yeah?
posted by hap_hazard at 6:10 PM on July 13, 2010


Therapists for years have listened to patients blame parents for their problems. Now there is growing interest in the other side of the story

Coincidentally, Boomers were the adult kids in therapy 20 years ago and are now the ones with adult kids. Huh.
posted by DU at 6:27 PM on July 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


I agree that you can provide every material need for a child and still fail them profoundly in other ways. My parents were in that category. I have nothing at all in common with them but thankfully we do get along pretty well. It helps that I understood they didn't have it in them to give me what I needed-the right type of emotional support. It's sad but I can get past it.

My own children have been an education. They really did need totally different parenting styles. I was much more "successful" with two of them than the third. She needed the type of parenting from me that was totally not natural to me. Only now am I figuring out the ways she struggled.

One other thing. I have had lots of experience with a type of counselling known as "family systems." Those types of counselors are trained to look at the whole family not just the "troubled" one. Because usually the troubled one is simply the canary in the coal mine.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:39 PM on July 13, 2010


Wow. Metafilter is full of some pretty damn unhappy people.

I love my parents.
posted by azarbayejani at 7:06 PM on July 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


It is crucial that parents at a certain point renounce any parental role in the lives of their children. That way, a true friendship can flourish.

I agree with this so much that I wish I could favourite it many times.

Like Astro Zombie, I don't have a lot in common with most of my family. We're completely different people and have utterly different points of view and methods of dealing with the world. My relationship with my mother, in particular, was very bad when I was in my twenties and it was partly her need to hang onto me and keep parenting that drove me away. It's taken a lot of work to build it up to the point where we can have pleasant conversations. She gives me the impression that she would actually prefer me to have screwed up in some way so that I would still have some emotional dependence on her.

It's actually very frustrating when one is not a bad seed but is a reasonably decent, stable and intelligent human being and yet one's parent still wants to know what she "did wrong" every time you talk. I was a reasonably good kid - never got into any trouble, got great marks at school, asked for no money once I left home and went on to university, have a good job and have been in a stable relationship for over 20 years. My brother, while he's fundamentally a good bloke, has had problems in most areas of his life which I haven't had but neither of us blames the parents for them. I don't see the point of endlessly rehashing what they could've done differently - I certainly don't know any better than they did in that respect. Like most people, they did the best they could with what they had.
posted by andraste at 7:26 PM on July 13, 2010


> "I feel sorry for those of you that seem to have burned bridges and maintained the angerof adolescence. Honestly, I hope you are all young - with a good amount of time to reflect, rethink and restart your relationship with your parents. And if you aren't, may you still find time to forgive and move on."

No. I feel sorry for you. I feel sorry that your lack of experience in life makes you think that any anger directed towards parents must be a result of adolescent anger. I am sorry you can read a thread where people confess to a childhood full of physical and emotional violence, something that has made just reading this thread an incredibly painful task for some of us, and you cannot care enough to think outside of the tiny tiny box you live in.

I'll continue not having a relationship with my father, a man that has done such terrible things, I cannot relate them in public. They are shameful, awful things, and instead of living with them every day under some fucked up obligation, I instead maintain that he has no right to be involved in my life. It's my life, he stopped contributing to it very early on, and that is my choice and also my right to be angry about it. You do not get to dismiss it. It is not something for me to feel ashamed of.
posted by saturnine at 7:28 PM on July 13, 2010 [22 favorites]


I, too, love my parents. But there's a very very very story behind that, but realize this: it had to be learned.
posted by grubi at 7:28 PM on July 13, 2010


Oops. Left out the word 'long'.
posted by grubi at 7:29 PM on July 13, 2010


Well, let's give you a cookie, aren't you special.
posted by winna at 7:30 PM on July 13, 2010


That comment was not meant for grubi, but for the delightfully smug comment about all the unhappy people above.
posted by winna at 7:31 PM on July 13, 2010


Oh, no worries, winna.

I will say this, and I've said it before: True family isn't who you're born with. It's who you choose and who chooses you back.
posted by grubi at 7:37 PM on July 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


True family isn't who you're born with. It's who you choose and who chooses you back.

Exactly.

I still speak to my parents, but my mother likes to make me feel horrible by wanting my reassurance about her parenting. I am always polite and reassuring because what on earth is the point of having conversations about it like a damn encounter group when it is all in the dead past.

But I adopted myself a brother who is like a piece of my heart. He is my everything. And I adopted myself a sister and from there I got a nephew and a brother-in-law. And so I have a family of my own of people I love and of whom I am proud who are related to me because I say so.
posted by winna at 7:53 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


What would Kurt Vonnegut say?
posted by KokuRyu at 8:34 PM on July 13, 2010


Years ago I read the book "And I Don't Want to Live This Life" by Deborah Spungen.

Hah! My mom read that book while she was pregnant with me. It scared the living crap out of her.

Honestly, I think this kind of article and the ensuing debate is going to look pretty silly in 50 years when we understand brain chemistry better. A family friend had adult-onset schizophrenia and at the time (in the 70s) the psychiatrists all tried to blame her parents. I'm sure there are people out there who would still blame parents who had a schizophrenic child but I think the mainstream of society recognizes that schizophrenia is a disease that can be treated. I'm reasonably confident that as neuroscience continues to progress, we'll start to recognize patterns in brain chemistry and behavior that can explain a lot of weird personality quirks.

Not saying that I think these "problem kids" are necessarily treatable or that they ought to be, but I think it's pretty fucking far-fetched to assume bad parenting is the only element at work here, and I feel for parents who have to raise a kid who is just trouble. I've known a fair few kids like that and one of them once told me, "You know, my parents are pretty cool. I know I put them through a lot. I wish I didn't, but I just can't help myself."
posted by little light-giver at 9:18 PM on July 13, 2010


What would Kurt Vonnegut say?

Goddamnit, babies, you've got to be kind.
posted by liketitanic at 10:01 PM on July 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


"You seem to want to martyr yourself. Shall I find you a lion?"
posted by wobh at 10:13 PM on July 13, 2010


It's almost painfully transparent in this thread which commenters have had bad experiences with their parents or their children (more often their parents) -- they're the ones who jump up with "maybe some kids really are just bad" with "NO SUCH THING THERE'S SECRET EVIL HAPPENING AND IT'S ALL THE PARENTS' FAULT" or something similar.

What it comes down to, is there are some people who, through no fault of their own, are forced to deal with people (parents or children) they are simply ill-equipped to deal with, and that makes latent problems crop up that otherwise might never arise, or exacerbate problematic tendencies that already exist.

Some parents really ARE just bad parents. But some kids, likewise, really are bad kids.
posted by chimaera at 10:48 PM on July 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


I guess that was a big roundabout way to spout the truism that everyone is the hero in their own story.
posted by chimaera at 10:54 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Like many articles in the NYT, the original article by the psychiatrist and the follow-up blog post are irritatingly sloppy and audience-baiting. They conflate the popular notion of a "bad seed"-- the mean, antisocial, and violent person whose meanness cannot be attributed to environmental factors by most objective observers-- with adult children who reject a relationship with their parents. These are completely different categories of people. The proverbial bad seed is someone who is inexplicably foul or abusive to everyone. The "toxic" child, as defined by this psychiatrist, is someone who appears to be ungrateful or unfilial to his parents. The author cites as an example a 35-year-old man "who despite his many advantages was short-tempered and rude to his parents — refusing to return their phone calls and e-mail, even when his mother was gravely ill."

Why was this dude rude and uncommunicative? We don't know. Maybe he was thoughtless and could never get his shit together enough to write or call. Maybe he was justifiably angry towards his parents. Maybe he was unjustifiably angry. Maybe he wasn't rude at all, but his parents just thought he was rude. We just don't know. To come to a conclusion we'd have to interview both parties and review evidence of their communiques over the years, which this psychiatrist isn't interested in doing. His job to soothe his patients and make them feel better (often by telling them that it's not their fault).

The conflation of the "bad seed" archetype with estranged adult children is insidious because it evacuates individual cases of estrangement of all context and agency. Oh no, my child has cut off all contact with me because she was just born that way, y'know, like that sociopathic little girl in the movie.

Nevertheless I totally get why this is such a powerful topic. It strikes a raw nerve for me, too. From the years I was 13 to 23 my mother repeatedly told me what a rotten child I was. She was bitterly unhappy with her marriage and saw me as an embodiment of my father. She took basically everything I did as evidence of how I didn't love her, how I was ungrateful, how I was selfish and spoiled, etc. I believed her and I was filled with self-loathing. I felt incredibly guilty; I would cry and say I was sorry, that I did too love her and appreciate her, that I would be better in the future. (Note: objectively speaking I was a fine kid and young adult. Good student, never got into trouble, obedient and cooperative and hard-working and all that.) Since talking with her meant getting harangued for hours about how horrible I was, I began to avoid calling or writing to her. So she'd become even more convinced that I was unloving and ungrateful, and assail me with even more guilt-tripping self-pitying calls, emails, and visits.

At the same time she basically gave me everything, materially, that I ever have wanted. I had an extremely comfortable childhood and adolescence. She was and is a great provider, devoted to her children's welfare, and completely thoughtful and reliable. But she asked for a lot back, and her quid pro quo mentality was unfair and exhausting.

So I don't know how I feel about what children owe their parents. I reflexively hate being told that I owe anything, in part because my mother used this for a long time to try to make me feel guilty. I'm also wary of considering myself a victim, because I know lots of other people have a much worse time of it. If my mother had seen this article some years ago she surely would have concluded that I was one of those bad seeds.
posted by ms.codex at 11:44 PM on July 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Related: Philip Larkin - This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:20 AM on July 14, 2010 [12 favorites]


I've known people with the one kid out of the bunch who just isn't ok. I have friends whose oldest son has been institutionalized repeatedly for inappropriately touching young girls (3-6 years old is his preferred age range) when he was 11 to 17. They (dad and step-mom) are appalled. His mom is appalled. He seems to know right from wrong, but also seems to have no impulse control. He's about to be 18 and in a transitional program for young sex offenders, and we're all sure he's going to end up in prison. It's terrifying.

In contrast, my parents were and are still very interesting people to me. None of us got along when I was 14 to 22. It was a combination of all of us figuring our own stuff out. My mom was 19 when I was born and gave up a successful college career in 1968 to be my mom, and she wasn't the most maternal of women. She had to deal with a lot of stuff I haven't. Dad violated my idea of privacy when I was a senior in high school (read some private stuff), but I eventually realized it was because he cared.

My parents are a pair of my favorite people, in spite of mistakes we all made. Maybe it's easier for me because I'm an only child. I don't know.

I didn't have my own kids until I was almost 30. They are 13 and 12 now.

At one point, when my kids were tiny, my mom tried to tell me I was not parenting them correctly. We didn't communicate at all for about 2 months after that, and then I sent her an email asking her advice. Her response was something like, "I really don't know. I only had you and you were a pretty good kid. I've never had to deal with more than one child or anything with a divorce." That was liberating to me. My mom said she didn't know! She's never had a cross word about my parenting skills since. It doesn't hurt that I've so far been blessed with smart and mostly trouble-free children so far. I don't expect them to be perfect. I expect them to do their best and to be good people.

Thing is, when I was born, my mom was still pretty much a kid, too, and in a new small town where she didn't know anyone and couldn't get around easily. So, she was left home alone with me a lot of the time. For 5+ years. I can understand how that was hard for her. I'm talking about a lady who did calculus problems for fun. She gave up her science and math future for me. Now, she's been a successful commercial artist in her local area for over 20 years. We've found our middle ground. She's admits she "wasn't the most maternal" person, but she was actually pretty great. Similarly, my dad is very reserved with his emotions, but I know he loves all of us, even if he doesn't say it out loud.

I was an awful teenager, but teenagers brains are wired to be selfish. I say it is nature's way to get the parents and the kid ready for the kid to leave the nest. I expect my two now-loving children to tell me I'm stupid any day now. My plan? Teach them the skills they need to fend for themselves and wait it out. I hope they decide I'm as ok and interesting of a person as I think my parents are... eventually.

My kids sure don't owe me anything. I hope I get to stay in regular touch with them because I'm crazy fond of them and think they are interesting young people to spend time with. My job is to get them fully ready to leave the nest.

I haven't gotten to see them in 3 weeks (summer visitation schedule with their dad), and I sure do miss them right this second.
posted by lilywing13 at 12:22 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


How and when did they earn a permanent right to my time and energy?

I was surprised to read here that some people think we don't owe our parents anything! I think it may be a cultural thing, I was brought up to view family connections as a lifeline for everyone in the family. Even if you refuse to talk to someone, you don't let them end up under a bridge, if it's in any way possible. So this thread is enlightening and I'm reading it with great interest.

I don't think I owe my mom for feeding and clothing me. And certainly not for the guilting and screeching and cold shouldering and whatever else went on when we clashed in my teenage years. But I think I owe her for the hugs and the loving and the blowing on hurt spots to make it better and the staying up all night with me so I would not be alone studying for my exam. I owe her for the hours she spent listening to me and for giving me the best part of whatever we were sharing and taking the crappier half. I owe her for cooking for me every single day after a long hard work day, to make sure I was eating right. And I owe her for finally letting go of me and letting me be my own person.

I owe her big time, man.

That said, I totally understand cutting off parents who treat you completely like crap.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:45 AM on July 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


Wow. Metafilter is full of some pretty damn unhappy people.

I love my parents.


Wow. The world is full of some pretty damn poor people.

I'm rich.
posted by catchingsignals at 5:15 AM on July 14, 2010 [7 favorites]


I owe her big time, man.

Yes, but that's YOUR decision, not hers. That's my point. You feel you owe your mom? Okay. But she has NO RIGHT to expect anything in return for those things.

That's all I've been saying.
posted by grubi at 5:25 AM on July 14, 2010


I hear you, grubi.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:40 AM on July 14, 2010


...though, now I'm getting sidetracked thinking about the concept of "owing" of immaterial things in a relationship. I do think it's reasonable to think you deserve respect if you've given someone respect, for instance. Doesn't that extend to parent-child relationships too?

(I'm not trying to be difficult and I know it's a difficult topic because it's so fraught with emotion. Just really trying to work out how to think about this.)
posted by Omnomnom at 5:57 AM on July 14, 2010


Owe parents "something"? Some parents are owed respect. Other parents are owed far worse.

I are the toxic child. Bwahahaha. The horrors I put my parents through are legion. I just wish I'd put them through the horror of never speaking to them again a few decades sooner. Then I might be speaking about entirely different parents, in an entirely different way. The pain reduced for everyone, all round.

Toxic! Oh, hell yes. I toxic cock sucker! How dare I be such a sick creep, when my parents had sacrificed so much! And so young! I was a menace! Who knew what cock I might seek to suck next! I might turn the whole town queer!

Even so, I participated in the charade that it was somehow otherwise, and then I left. And still I played the little game of pretend. Until I couldn't.

Toxic? Hell yes! I confess! When that bitch I called "mother" died, I felt relief! Fuck me, I'm EVIL!

Toxic. Fifty-three years old, and I still can fall in a dizzy spiral of depression over thinking about my relationship with my parents.
posted by Goofyy at 6:14 AM on July 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


I do think it's reasonable to think you deserve respect if you've given someone respect, for instance. Doesn't that extend to parent-child relationships too?

Without question. But who judges the "owing"? Who gets to decide if any "repayment" or "exchange" will take place? I just don't believe the parents have any right to expect any compensation for their efforts as parents. If teh child so chooses to reciprocate, then that is AWESOME, in both senses of the word. But the parent has no moral right to be disappointed in the child if he/she chooses not to reciprocate. that sort of thing leads to charges of "ungrateful" and "mean" leveled at someone who never agreed to the dynamic in the first place. We parents did agree to shelter, feed, clothe, educate, and (in most cases!) love our children. If my son never "pays me back," I'll be sad, but I'll understand it's not up to me as a parent. Just like it's not up to my parents to decide whether I should do the same for them. That's the basic parenting deal, IMO.

To those folks who love their parents and want to "pay them back": please do continue to love them. And give them whatever it is you feel comfortable with. And I hope that everyone gets a chance to feel that way, but, having the history with my parents I have had, I fault no man or woman for choosing not to.
posted by grubi at 6:16 AM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do think it's reasonable to think you deserve respect if you've given someone respect, for instance. Doesn't that extend to parent-child relationships too?

Of course. I think though, that some parents just aren't satisfied with what they get - given a relatively normal childhood you don't expect to be treated like dirt for raising your children, but also the amount of obligation is going to vary with each child's personality.

Like one of my nephews just happen to be incredibly independent and adventurous and is likely to bugger off for extended time periods at any moment - I don't expect him to remember my birthday, call me at christmas or even let me know where he is. It doesn't mean he doesn't love me (I hope), he's just busy with his own stuff.

Sitting in the dark being a martyr about it was my mother-in-law, I'd like to think I'm just happy to find out he's alive every now and then when he shows up on a whim.

My son OTOH, is a lot needier and probably the type to have Sunday dinner at my house until he dies. He likes routine. So fine, he can do that. And when it comes time for me to go into a nursing home, they can do the same damn thing without any guilt tripping on my part.
posted by shinybaum at 6:43 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Or an easier way of putting it is to say encouraging children's personalities is more important than having them turn out to be picture perfect ideals of what my children ought to be like. I spent a lot of time in my nephew's teenagehood trying very hard to find him amusingly eccentric. He turned out great.
posted by shinybaum at 6:50 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I owe her big time, man.

No, no you don't. Because if you love her, feel natural affection towards her, want to take care of her and see her happy and see her with a long life with full health -- you do none of it because you drew up a ledger of what she did for you and what you did for her and decided that shit yeah, you still owe her a lot, better get to repaying!

You do it because you love her, right?

That love grew within your relationship with her. Despite the problems you had with her in your teenage years, it was a good enough relationship that love could survive there.

That is not the case for many, many people. Many parents do horrific things to their children, and most of them don't leave visible scars.

But you want to talk about owing and repaying? So should children repay the cruelties too? Because it can be done. You want to see that done? It can be done. It is only fair, right?

Because otherwise, you are reversing the roles of parent and children. You are asking the children to be the strong, infinitely patient and understanding ones -- you are asking the children to parent their parents. (And I bet if you asked many people in this thread, they would tell you they already did that, when they were children).

I made the comment I made earlier because to me, some comments in this thread parallel the "I was poor once, but I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, so there's no reason why you can't!" mentality of a lot of people who made it out of what they saw as less privileged backgrounds. With a mixture of seeing everyone else's lives through their own and the just-world fallacy, they have no idea of the luck they had in even having the parents they could make it work with in the first place -- because surely it was due to their own hard work or their wise and mature change of perspective that things changed! And so most other parent-child relationships need only the same! (except the obviously abusive ones obviously!!!) And it is only the children who haven't tried hard enough, or are too self-absorbed to see beyond themselves. Because you just know, don't you? It worked for you after all.

Who really cares if a parent is a "good" parent, or if a child is a "good" child? There is some nature, some nurture, we do our best, we hope love grows. We don't judge when it doesn't. Can we not judge when it doesn't? I don't judge my parents. I don't care if they were good or not -- it's over and in the past. I care how they are in the present. And in the present, every time they contact me, it feels like a battering ram to my psyche. And all the work in therapy and psychology and books and working desperately hard to try to make myself stronger hasn't changed that. I still have nightmares about them, have had them for years, where I wake up screaming and feeling like my chest is about to burst. What then?

It is like a pandora's box. I spent many, many years, with many other people's help, trying desperately to close it. And every time I even think about going near it -- because my parents are getting old, and can't I make them if not happy at least do something to make them less unhappy? -- I feel suicidal. I feel desperate. There's your family connection as a lifeline. I have nightmares about them for a reason. I feel this terror every time I think of them for a reason. I wish them the utmost happiness in the world -- I just need them far, far away from me.

Think about it for even a moment -- why would someone willingly give up family? It is the most reliable and intimate connections many of us are supposed to have in the world. Who would willingly give that up?

Have you ever lost family? Your roots? It feels like you've had a part of you ripped out of you. So why would someone do it to themselves? Do you really think most people do it out of some petty bitterness, for years and for decades?

We have nothing to base our judgements on, either way. Not the parents, and not the children. And none of our judgements matter, except when it reinforces a world where parents or children who need to protect themselves are told that they shouldn't, and they are hurt even more because they have to uphold some Hallmark ideals of what families are supposed to be like.

I am truly thankful for the parents in this thread who understand. They make me hopeful for their children.
posted by catchingsignals at 7:29 AM on July 14, 2010 [10 favorites]


Another reason not to have kids. On a related note, nymag's recent article on why parents hate parenting is also an eye opener.
posted by lahersedor at 7:30 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Often, he said, parents in these situations give up too soon. He advises them to continue weekly letters, e-mail messages or phone calls even when they are rejected

Also, any parents with estranged children reading this, please don't do this if your child has asked you not to. A yearly letter to let them know you still hope for reconciliation, that is understandable. But please don't just ignore what they ask of you -- they may be asking for that distance because it allows them to clear their heads, and because it is really important for their mental wellbeing. Because

After all, he went on, parents and children have very different perspectives. “It’s possible for a parent to feel like they were doing something out of love,” he said, “but it didn’t feel like love to that child.”

And when you love someone, it seems to me, you don't love them the way you want to love them, and then get angry with them "Why won't they accept my love???" Because that is not love. That is just for you. Love is asking and finding out how the other person needs to be loved, and then loving them that way, if you want to and if you can.

A poem I always really liked:

On Children
by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
posted by catchingsignals at 7:50 AM on July 14, 2010 [17 favorites]


They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

--Philip Larkin - This Be The Verse
posted by magstheaxe at 9:53 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have an older sister that has always been "difficult" as my mother always put it. The stunts that she would pull were egregious. Up until the day my mother died, she was telling crazy lies about satan worship and sexual abuse, so she could get away with her own sins and others would feel pity for her.

I was there every minute, and I can attest to you that none of it ever happened, unless all those quack shrinks in the 80s were right about repressed memories, and the satanic panic was real.

The last time I talked to my sister was in 2005, on the night my mother died. I had to go to the strip club she was working at after witnessing my mother's death, and wade through the skeeze just to relay the message of what had happened. She said she was happy "that bitch is gone". This was after my mother took custody of her 4 kids so they didn't end up in the social services system, because my sister hadn't enrolled them in school and rarely ever fed them. After my mother took custody, it became apparent that my sister was using her little girls as bait to attract the worst possible men she could.

Let me convey this to you clearly--- My mother was not infallible, but she was a damned good mom. We never went hungry, we were never lacking of love or affection, we weren't sexually/ physically / emotionally abused at all, and our cultural needs were met daily. My mom was always racked with guilt because the thinking is that if you have a horrible child, it must be your fault. You must've done something to make them the monsters that they eventually become. That is very untrue. I am of the opinion that bad people are born in some cases and not made.

I have come to the conclusion that my sister is a sociopath, or she was born without a soul, or she's just missing something that makes her human. I'm positive that if her childhood was what she says it was, she'd have ended up like
Aileen Wuornos.
posted by From the Fortress at 10:18 AM on July 14, 2010


The problem with childhood, especially for those of us who are sort of turned on from an emotional perspective, is that there are so many moments that are, for you, absolutely life-changing, paradigm-busting boundaries between eras of your self-conception while being little more than accidents, missteps, or circumstance on the part of your parents.

One of those cosmic attractors for me is an incident in the third grade, when Mrs. Kane, a lumbering mass of foul-tempered should'a-been-something-else with a particular lack of patience for my peculiarities flipped out because I had so little impulse control with my Volkswagen-shaped eraser that I couldn't help but make quiet little rrr-rrr-rrr sounds as I erased and locked me in a five foot-tall rolling coat cabinet full of wet winter coats for the last half of a school day. Granted, having a kid go rrr-rrr-rrr in homage to the air-cooled boxer engined glory of a Beetle while erasing is really, really annoying, but there are grades of appropriate response, and imprisonment in a sodden metal box isn't acceptable.

"Mister Wall," her voice said, as I sat there, shivering. "Are you ready to behave like a decent citizen, or are you going to hold all the other children up from retrieving their coats?"

"I didn't do anything wrong," I mumbled.

"I can't hear you, Mister Wall."

"I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING WRONG!"

"Then why are you in this coat cabinet?"

I thought hard about what I could say that wouldn't get me into more trouble. Hmmm, well maybe I did have a bit of impulse control. Sometimes you just have to practice a little diplomacy, even when you're eight and a spasmo.

"Because I used my eraser in an inappropriate manner," I said, the little sparks of psychopathic insincerity lighting my eyeballs up from inside as I spit out the exact words she wanted to hear.

The doors swung open. I sat there, squinting in the glare.

"See how easy it is when you're a good citizen?"

YEAH, I'VE GOT YOUR GOOD FUCKING CITIZEN RIGHT HERE YOU MALODOROUS COW!

"Yes."

"Yes what?"

"Yes Ma'am."

"Please remove yourself from the cabinet, Joseph. The last bell has rung and the other children are eager to retrieve their coats."

I was dead silent on the bus home, and my silence created little murmuring ripples of respectful quiet even among the kids who'd normally have used the ride as another opportunity to work the spasmo up into a hilarious and oddly-articulate froth.

I ran in, finally free to cry, and told my mother what happened, and how I'd been trapped in a little metal box for hours, with wet coats around me and...and...why isn't my mother getting angry?

That's one of those moments, where you realize how cold and hard the world can be. The coat cabinet was one thing, but not being believed was another. After a fruitless repetition of details, I stomped up to my room, pulled out the bottom drawer of the dresser built into my supercool 1970s disco futuristic wonderland bunk bed (built by my dad), crawled in, and carefully pulled the drawer in after me, so I could sit and stew in the one place in the house where no one could ever, ever find me, with some books and a flashlight and my tape recorder.

My mother remembers this differently, and after years of trying to convince her otherwise, I now yield to her memory, though the fact is that she didn't believe me at the time, not until several parents called her to tell her the crazy story their kids were telling them about how Mrs. Kane locked Joe-B in a coat cabinet, a fact I only learned years and years later. I used to feel like she had to admit to the real story, you know, because she owed me that, after not believing me when I was crying and wounded.

Except...well, except I was, and remain, in some ways, a total bullshit artist. In my maturity, such that it is, I call that being a good storyteller, but when I was a kid, reality was this fluid, exciting thing that could be bent and altered as I saw fit, shaving off the ugly edges of my life and replacing them with glamorous excess and preposterous claims.

When I urinated my own name into the unpainted drywall of the bathroom my father was building in our utility room, a large signature of JOE-B rendered in piss-stinking water stains surrounded by spackle spots and compounded joint tape, I had the balls to claim that the neighborhood bad kid, who was known to smoke marijuana, for Pete's sake, had come in, whipped it out, and FRAMED me. No, seriously. Jeff Kramer, of Scaggsville, Maryland, actually came busting in uninvited, in 1976, to use his urine stream to falsely incriminate an eight year-old boy he'd never met.

They were mean, dangerous years, back in the seventies.

I spent years treating that slight as a seminal moment of realizing my parents didn't really love or understand me, and there are lots more moments just like that, where the thing I thought my parents should have done wasn't remotely what they did, and within a few years, I started writing to celebrities that I thought looked like an idealized version of my mother, asking if they would adopt me.

Amusingly, Cloris Leachman wrote me back from her dressing room on the set of Phyllis, penning a few lovely pages on how flattered she was that I'd considered her as a replacement mother, but that she knew my mother well and thought she was a wonderful mother. I'd trade a kidney for that letter now, as it would be the best goddamn thing anyone ever posted to a blog, but things get away from us. I took it with a grain of salt, but didn't suspect for a moment that Cloris Leachman would be anything but honest with me.

I didn't pout very long before I snuck back out of my dresser, hoping to catch my family being bewildered at my sudden and mysterious disappearance, but instead, I heard my mother slam the phone down, storm out the door, and tear out of our driveway with our old Volvo fishtailing and kicking up clouds of dust and gravel as it lurched onto Scaggsville Road.

Sheeesh, now the lady's leaving me home all alone! Is there anything that woman won't do to me? And I'm hungry, too!

"Joe, let me tell you--your mother came into that school and turned the place upside-down," my favorite teacher in the world told me, as I sat in her living room, drinking tea and talking about my childhood.

"Oh, c'mon. Mom wouldn't even cuss. She spelled cuss words."

"Good Godfrey, Joe, she cussed that day. I never saw Skinner [yes, our principal was Mr. Skinner] look like that in all the years I taught at Hammond," she said, and laughed about it in a way that made it clear it was as fresh and wonderful a moment for her as it had been, almost twenty years earlier.

I never spent another day in Mrs. Kane's class.

Of course, I ended up in Special Education, which seemed like an even worse torture to me, but you just don't begin to understand the miseries of fighting huge institutions until you've grown up and fought a few of them on your own.

This is only my story. Yours will be different, but it's worth investigating, beyond being angry, bitter, and damaged by the past. There's really nothing wrong with, on finding that the crimes of your youth really were crimes, moving on to create your own family where you find it, but there's also nothing about the act of reproduction that prepares people for parenting, either, especially for earlier generations still in thrall of the social disasters of the mid-twentieth century. They're only going to be as good at it as their parents were, unless they're lucky enough to get a little outside information.

It goes without saying that I keep hoping more people have experiences like my own, so they can have the same joy of discovery that I had, finding better stories hidden below the rough surfaces of our memories, but I know I'm just being an optimist, hoping that the world will continue to be better than what it seems.

It's the one lie I still tell myself, unashamedly, even now.

In that, I haven't changed a bit, but I did learn how to erase silently, just in case.
posted by sonascope at 10:20 AM on July 14, 2010 [24 favorites]


This is a nearly perfect Rorschach thread.
posted by chimaera at 10:47 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


[comment removed - take your whatthefuckiswrongwithyou to email or someplace else]
posted by jessamyn at 11:21 AM on July 14, 2010


This is a nearly perfect Rorschach thread.

Mr Chimaera, tell me about...your mother.
posted by grubi at 11:31 AM on July 14, 2010


It's interesting the word Bad Seed pops up here. It was, of course, popularized by the really trashy boom by William March, which was turned into the enjoyably trashy stage play and film starring the astonishing Patty McCormack ("You hit him with your shoes, didn't you?"). It popularized the hokum that a murderous trait can be passed down through generations, skipping one child and being passed on to his or her own offspring.

But the real-life Bad Seed, the one who got that as a nickname, was a 10-year-old girl from Newcastle named Mary Bell, who, in 1968, strangled two little boys and left criptic notes for the police. She was a media sensation, a little girl who out of nowhere turned murderous. But in 1998, after her conviction -- she was imprisoned until 1980, and generally understood as being a psychopath -- Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell came out, revealing that she had been the subject of sexual abuse at an early age from her mother.

We must never make presumptions about the nature of evil in children, neither must we assume that conflicts with parents are the results of childishness, or neurosis, or a lack of respect for a debt we are supposed to owe our parents. While I try to see my own pain as comedy, no matter how great, as it helps me address it, I also try to see others pain as tragedy, no matter how minor, as that is how they experience it, and we cannot know where it springs from, and how terrible that place may be.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:39 AM on July 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


Unfortunately, there is still such a thing as the sacrificial lamb, and when an unhealthy family — usually one with borderline or pathologically (as opposed to healthily) narcissist parent(s) — designates a child as one, there will be hell to pay if the child tries to shirk their "responsibility" of paying for others' sins. The related psychological term is splitting. (E.g. black and white thinking applied to children: one or more are an angel, all good; usually just one is chosen to be evil; all bad. If there's just one, it's easier to believe. The worst part is that the selected "sacrificial lamb/all-bad child" themself comes to believe that it may be true, otherwise why would everyone be treating them so badly? It doesn't matter whether it's true or not, because with enough relentless pressure, abusers can make it believable enough that others will believe them, or at the least, not bother to question them.)

This. I'm a former teacher, and I see this all the time in supposedly "bad kids." Sometimes one child is chosen to be the bad one, and it is ever thus. And then the child becomes more that through the spiral of expectation and rejection.

As for myself, I found myself sobbing eventually through this thread. I can't even write adequately about my relationship with my mother because it hurts too much. I still haven't decided how much I will accompany her on her journey into old age, because I know how nasty she's going to get. All subtlety, I know, will go out the window. I watched her "sacrifice" with her mother, and be called the worst things her mother could think of. I don't know if I can do it myself, but the inter-generational guilt economy I've lived with my whole life is a shit thing to expect a child to participate in. If I choose to be there, it will be on my own terms.
posted by RedEmma at 11:45 AM on July 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


the inter-generational guilt economy I've lived with my whole life is a shit thing to expect a child to participate in.

This, a thousand times. The whole reason I believe in the idea that no child owes his or her parents.
posted by grubi at 11:53 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it’s important not to conflate children who cut off their parents because of neglect and abuse with children who cut off their parents even though there has been no neglect and abuse.

We can all understand and sympathize with people who’ve suffered emotional/physical abuse at the hands of their parents. If you made the choice to cut your parents off because of that abuse—well, I for one say more power to you. But I really don’t think these articles are trying to address that sort of situation.

....there are so many moments that are, for you, absolutely life-changing, paradigm-busting boundaries between eras of your self-conception while being little more than accidents, missteps, or circumstance on the part of your parents.*

Exactly. There was a comment in the NYT that speaks to this.

A mother, after joyfully being her daughter’s best friend from childhood and actively involved in the rearing of the grandchildren, was blindsided when her daughter suddenly turned to her and screamed “I NEED TO BE THE MOTHER NOW!”. The daughter cut off contact with the mother for months, and then later denied that she’d ever said such a thing. She even wondered aloud to her father what she had done to make her mother withdraw from her.

The daughter had apparently gone from wanting and needing her mother’s help and involvement with her children to feeling that the mother was interfering with her relationship with the children. The mother, on the other hand, was happily oblivious and thought everything was just fine.

I think the article is trying—and failing—to address that difference in perception. Presumably, the psychiatrist (as a third party observer) has determined that no parental abuse took place*, so that begs the question: why else would a child cut himself off from his parents? The child wouldn’t do it for no reason. So what’s the reason? If the parent has genuinely tried to be a good parent, what could possibly be the reason?

It would have been so helpful to hear from the “toxic children”. Maybe there was abuse that the parent is hiding and won’t face. Or maybe it’s like that NYT comment: the child and parent see the same series of events through completely different, irreconcilable lenses, and react accordingly.

I wish the NYT had done these articles right.



*He could be wrong, of course, but that’s another thread.
posted by magstheaxe at 12:02 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


If the parent has genuinely tried to be a good parent, what could possibly be the reason?

Personalities just don't always mesh.
posted by grubi at 12:07 PM on July 14, 2010


Catchingsignals: I think you're also answering to things said by people other than me. I'm going to reply to the things that do adress what I was saying.

You do it because you love her, right?

Well...no. No actually. Even had my mother been significantly crappier to me I would have loved her and longed for her love. But I wouldn't treat her the way I am now.
There's a whole nother argument in how love is something you do, not something you feel, which I kind of agree with, but assuming we are talking about a feeling, love is only part of how I act towards my mother. A significant part is my sense of duty and debt. I'm not sure if that sounds horrible to a person a US-/Western-European mindset, to me it sounds good, normal and just what I am used to thinking. I appreciate you taking the effort to explain your point of view to me though. It is helping me understand other ways of thinking.

That is not the case for many, many people. Many parents do horrific things to their children, and most of them don't leave visible scars.

Yes, and I have said that I understand cutting off a person who treats you horribly. It's of course subjective and up to the person concerned what "horrible" is. (I think we're agreeing about that.) I don't judge you or anyone for not talking to their parents, I assume you have had experiences that lead you to act the way you do. I'm sorry you had such a rotten childhood btw. I wish things were different.

I had assumed, however that the "norm" for relationships in which parents do not treat their children horrifically should be the children owing them a certain decency and reciprocation in return, for when the parents have need of their children. I see that this is not at all the norm in other people's points of view and am reading this thread with great interest.

But you want to talk about owing and repaying? So should children repay the cruelties too? Because it can be done. You want to see that done? It can be done. It is only fair, right?

Maybe I understand the term wrong but I don't think there is such a thing as owing someone cruelty. I mean, it doesn't make sense from the meaning of the word "owe". I think this is an analogy that doesn't work.
If you are asking would I advocate an eye for an eye policy, then I say no because I don't think it is good for anyone concerned, and not the person being cruel. It may be fair, what do I know - do you have a right to be cruel to people who are cruel to you? A question for another day. But I don't think it helps you. (Let me add that this is from my limited point of view and from my ethical position. I don't know how other people feel about this or how I would feel in the situation. Maybe I would disagree with myself. Just trying to answer the question from where I, personally, am at now.) I just don't think it makes sense to ask this question from the pov of owing or duty.

Again, I'm sorry that you had to experience so much pain because of your parents. Thanks for talking about that even if it is surely difficult.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:55 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree that one cannot owe cruelty. However, I do not think one can owe love, either.
posted by No Robots at 1:33 PM on July 14, 2010


Exactly. There was a comment in the NYT that speaks to this.

Yes, I read that comment. The mother and father in question showered gifts and money on the children. They moved thousands of miles to live in the same area, where Grandmother could be the grandchildren's daycare, while the parents worked. Grandmother participated in every family event, was at her daughter and son-in-laws house every day. Her daughter and son-in-law's friends were her friends, and she went everywhere they did.

After Grandmother was yelled at, she spent 2 days wondering around the city, sobbing inconsolably and refusing to tell anyone what happened. When her husband asked what was wrong she refused to tell him. After all, HER life had been ruined, taken away by her selfish daughter. She had no other life, daughter had "ripped it away".

Until I was half-way through the comment, I thought it was someone employing extreme sarcasm. When I figured out they were serious about how they had been wronged, I was shocked.

You want to know why your daughter snapped and yelled at you? Lady, you're lucky she didn't go to the Feds and demand to be put in the witness protection program.
posted by lootie777 at 1:34 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


I agree that one cannot owe cruelty. However, I do not think one can owe love, either

True. Love is a feeling. But time, care, aid, showing respect? I think that can be owed.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:42 PM on July 14, 2010


To riff on a famous verse, if I give all my time, care, aid, respect, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
posted by No Robots at 1:59 PM on July 14, 2010


Well, I just hit favorite on my own comment. Damn it! Anyway to undo that?

***

I know it's difficult to step back and see your own behavior, but the level of denial that people have for their actions is truly disturbing.

You don't like the fact that your child hasn't contacted you in days/weeks/years? Maybe if you hadn't been a self-centered, narcisstic jerk, you would have more contact.

There are consequences to actions, if you don't like those consequences then change your behavior.
posted by lootie777 at 2:01 PM on July 14, 2010


“Excess of love, did ye say? There was no excess, there was defect. She loved her son too little, not too much. If she had loved him more there’d be no difficulty. I do not know how her affair will end. But it may well be that at this moment she’s demanding to have him down with her in Hell. That kind is sometimes perfectly ready to plunge the soul they say they love in endless misery if only they can still in some fashion possess it.”
-- C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
posted by benzenedream at 2:34 PM on July 14, 2010


Two sides to every story. It is incumbent on both sides to be honest with each other and to have a little grace for each other. And it's incumbent on us moms to hear with open hearts when our kids have complaints. Because even with the very best intentions we parents screw up all the time. Because we aren't perfect.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:56 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Personalities just don't always mesh.

Yes indeed. My mother loves me. I know she does. She has sacrificed throughout her life to give me things and make me safe. My mother is fearless and strong and amazing. I love her and admire her.

But my mother doesn't really like me, and she has never liked me. And once I realized that fact as an adult, the whole pattern of my life fell into place. Because it wasn't my fault, and it wasn't her fault. It must have been hell on her to have a sour little bookworm who hated dresses when she was a super femme homemaker who loved pink and frills. She wanted a little girl who wasn't the sort who sat in a corner reading the encyclopedia to find out what to feed the tadpole she caught. She wanted a little girl who was afraid of snakes and the dark, who wanted to wear her hair in curls, who would sit still and cuddle with her mommy. She got stuck with me through a genetic lottery. She loved me, let me be clear. But I was not the kind of person she would spend time with, were we not related.

I won't ever have that discussion with her, though, because it would hurt her and it would be irrelevant. Coming to terms with the fact that sometimes you can't resolve the past is, I think, one of the most important steps toward some sort of inner peace.
posted by winna at 6:03 PM on July 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


My poor mom tried to give me Shirley Temple curls. I was the kind of kid who always looked as if she had just crawled out of a bramble bush. I was just like her mother--difficult, demanding, dictatorial, and terrible in my wrath--and she didn't deal well with her mother.

I spent ten years seeing her through the end of her life, because I was the one who lived nearby. She had Parkinson's, and gradual dementia, and if there was ever someone who didn't deserve to lose power over her own actions it was my mom, who was all about the struggle. She drove me crazy. As she became more confused, she did everything she could to exert some control. My daughter and I were remembering today how she would start whistling when she was mad, how she would insist that the remote control or the phone was broken when she just couldn't remember how to use it, and how she would try to bully me into going places and doing things I didn't want to do. It was awful, because I knew she really wanted to fight--she loved to fight--and though I didn't want to fight with her any more, because she was helpless, I would oblige her by telling her off.

I don't look forward to the end of my husband's life, because it's going to be worse. He's a difficult man and he won't be any less difficult if he has emphysema or lung cancer. I've been married to him for 34 years. If I am the one who fails first, I will be bloody awful.

Living with other people is hard, and often damaging. It's what poetry is made out of, too.
posted by Peach at 8:25 PM on July 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


lootie777:

Way to prove my point about perspective.

See, in the comment I read, the writer describes a very close relationship with her daughter where they did everything together from the time the daughter was small. Yes, she and Grandpa doted on the grandkids when they arrived. They also helped daughter out with buying a house. Grandma and her husband moved 1600 miles to mind the grandbabies while the daughter and daughter's husband worked. Doing so allowed the daughter to accept a promotion that involved a good deal of travel.


In the comment I read, everything changed with the daughter quit work, presumably to focus on her family. Suddenly, the grandmother wasn't wanted around so much. And instead of the daughter sitting her mother down and saying, "Things are changing, this is why, and I'm not going to want you around as much any more", the daughter bit the grandmother's head off out of the blue.

The writer also describes walking around a store crying for two hours--not days--on the day the daughter blew up at her. She describes an intense personal pain and mild depression as she comes to grips with the fact that the daughter and her will no longer be close like they once were.


(Now, maybe you're able to shrug off your best friend in the world suddenly ripping off your head and shitting down your neck the way the daughter did, but I suspect many people would react differently. I know when my then-best friend and I had our final fight that permanently ended our relationship several years ago, I cried for two days. The pain was like an open wound. And I could see it coming. I can't imagine what it was like for that poor woman.)


I read the writer's comment, and instantly felt sympathy for a woman I envisioned as a grandmother who's lost forever the formerly close relationship she had with her daughter (and, by extension, her grandchildren), all because the daughter chose to sit on her feelings until she couldn't stand it anymore.

You, on the other hand, read the same comment and envisioned a creepy old stalker-lady who was constantly meddling with her daughter's life, and who reacted in a totally narcissistic and self-centered manner when the daughter decided that the grandmother needed to back off. Rather than see a woman invited into her daughter's life, you saw someone in denial about the things that were wrong. Rather than seeing a person fumbling to explain her agony in words...you actually thought the writer was being sarcastic.

Talk about Rashomon. Wonder which of us is right?
posted by magstheaxe at 9:35 PM on July 14, 2010


To riff on a famous verse, if I give all my time, care, aid, respect, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

...but love alone is pretty shit without these other things. Where are you aiming with your riff?
posted by Omnomnom at 11:41 PM on July 14, 2010


magstheaxe, I suspect neither one of us is correct. One of the hardest lessons I've ever learned (and am obviously still struggling with) is that an outsider never knows what is really happening in a relationship, whether that is a marriage, siblings or parents to children.

Everything in this comment is IMO.

One of the things that struck me with that comment and your post is: Now, maybe you're able to shrug off your best friend in the world suddenly ripping off your head and shitting down your neck the way the daughter did,

Best friend? No, her mother. A comment earlier in the thread stated that parents have to transition into friends once their children are adults, and I physically recoiled after reading that. Parents are not your friends, and most especially mothers are not the best friends of daughters. In my experience, with my own mother and with my friends mothers, they can't turn off the parent part. Just when you think "wow, this is neat she's really listening and not lowering the boom", BAM your mother appears and a 30 something adult is suddenly emotionally transported back to Jr. High School.

Does the daughter in the comment bear responsibility? Of course! She was happy to take the wonderful gifts and Grandmother was a cheap alternative to day-care. Daughter over-reacted to what I am sure was a very innocent comment or action, and then tried to downplay it so Grandfather wouldn't bust her chops. But I wonder, based on the emotional (over) reaction and past experience, did daughter just try to ignore the problem and hope that Grandmother went quietly away? Did daughter and son-in-law let the Grandparents come to every social occasion and every event in their lives because they knew the emotional consequences if they tried to erect barriers?

Grandmother needs to find interests in her life that do not revolve around her family. She needs to have an honest, and probably painful discussion with daughter about what went down, and how they can fix it. And then they can mutually agree upon times to visit and dinner dates, and visiting times with grandchildren.
posted by lootie777 at 3:31 AM on July 15, 2010


Parents are not your friends

Amen. You can be friendly, and have a friend-like relationship, but the parent-child dynamic will always remain. and that's perfectly fine. My parents love me as their child, and are learning to deal with me (and as a consequence, like me) as a fellow parent and adult. It's not mere friendship, but it's parent-child without question.
posted by grubi at 7:27 AM on July 15, 2010


Where are you aiming with your riff?

Into the heart of darkness, where I'm sure to find good company. See ya, ma.
posted by No Robots at 7:51 AM on July 15, 2010


love alone is pretty shit

Yikes.
posted by No Robots at 9:43 AM on July 15, 2010


love alone is pretty shit

Now, to parse the last phrase. "Pretty shit". Is it "shit" in the euphemistic sense of "undesirable" and the word "pretty" serves as an intensifier ("very awful"?)? Or is the word "shit" literal, and this phrase means "attractive-looking feces"?

Until I have an answer, my degree in Advanced Beanplating cannot be complete.
posted by grubi at 9:55 AM on July 15, 2010


Parents are not your friends, and most especially mothers are not the best friends of daughters.


My mother was. I've been fortunate to have a few best friends in my life, and once I became an adult my mother showed me that it was possible to be a mom AND a best friend simultaneously. She was both to me 'til the day she died.


Best friend? No, her mother.


Maybe, like my mother, she was both. (It is possible, you know, despite your assertion to the contrary). And maybe that's the reason the grandmother had such a strong reaction to the door suddenly slamming shut on that part of the relationship.

I suspect neither one of us is correct.

And yet you came here and immediately took the daughter's side. Just as I took the grandma's. Rashomon, I say. You continue to prove my point about perspective.
posted by magstheaxe at 6:20 PM on July 15, 2010


I think you're also answering to things said by people other than me.

I was Omnomnom, sorry I didn't make it clearer.

Well...no. No actually. Even had my mother been significantly crappier to me I would have loved her and longed for her love. But I wouldn't treat her the way I am now.

I kind of know what you mean. One of my earliest memories was when I was I think six? and I had just learnt and understood that everybody dies. And it occurred to me that my mother was going to die at some point (even then my father didn't come into my mind, he was that distant), and six-year-old me, sitting on the toilet, sobbed his heart out. I just now started writing and deleted a story (too long) about taking an o.d. of antidepressants as a teenager to try to end my life but it got me high instead (except I didn't know it at the time), and I felt this great powerful urge to hug my parents tight, when they got back late in the evening, that I had to try so hard to resist, because we had never had any hugs before and, surely that would've given it away. I mention this to say I don't think it was the high; I don't think we, the children who cut off our parents, ever stop loving our parents or longing for their love. It just gets buried deep, deep inside, because we know it's not safe to do so anymore.

love is only part of how I act towards my mother. A significant part is my sense of duty and debt. I'm not sure if that sounds horrible to a person a US-/Western-European mindset, to me it sounds good, normal and just what I am used to thinking. I appreciate you taking the effort to explain your point of view to me though.

I appreciate the same from you too. I am actually a -- damn, I can't remember, there was a term in a Metafilter post for people who did half of their growing up in one culture and half in another. I was in an Asian culture till twelve, thirteen I think? then yes, Western-European since. But I have one foot in each. And I don't think the divide, while it's undoubtedly there, is as much as that; I think there are plenty of US/Western-European people who feel that children have a duty and debt to their parents. If not, even with all the commercialisation, we wouldn't have Mother's Day and Father's Day.

Let me sidetrack for a moment and talk about something I had been thinking about last night, a comment from way upthread:


Huh. I'm really torn on this. Don't we owe our parents something?

Far too many elderly waste away in nursing homes in this country. Shouldn't we care for them... because they're our parents and they're elderly? Do we just expect them to come up with all the resources they'll need when their old? That kind of smacks of all the nastiness of American-style consumerism, glorifying the young, dishonoring our ancestors, all the nasty stuff that's kind of destroyed our sense of respect for the elderly.

I can go both ways on this, but no matter how terrible my mom treats me or how nasty she gets when she's elderly, I'll die before I see her all alone in some budget nursing home.


So my question is, who looks after the people who never have children when they are old? Who loves after people who are gay, people who can't have children, people who simply chose not to? It seems to me you are mixing up quite a few things together, and blaming it on some kind of moral decline.

I absolutely do believe we as a society need to take care of everyone as they get old. But dishonouring our ancestors? Why should we honour our ancestors? And why should we respect the elderly, just because they are elderly? I am respectful to any elderly person I meet, unless I have specific reasons not to be, just as I am respectful to any person. I am respectful to who they are, not how old they are. And I would want them to be taken care of for the same reason.


I had assumed, however that the "norm" for relationships in which parents do not treat their children horrifically should be the children owing them a certain decency and reciprocation in return, for when the parents have need of their children. I see that this is not at all the norm in other people's points of view and am reading this thread with great interest.

The thing is, I get the impression that to you there is some line where treatment of children becomes "horrific", an aberration where you understand the "norm" and expectation obviously no longer applies. But, and I think many people in this thread have experienced this -- it more often that not does not work like that, is not that clear-cut. That is why "good" and "bad" judging of parents is meaningless; parents are people, and people are good and bad, and even some of the worst abusers will leave their children confused as to whether it was ever "horrific", or maybe they exaggerated it in their minds, or misremembered, or are really just selfish or making too much of it, or they were really the bad children that their parents told them they were. Many more parent-child relationships are even less clear, and we remember the times when they were kind; the glimpses of normality we saw in them; the times when they felt like normal parents, when we were happy, when it seemed close to love -- and we toss it over in our minds over, and over, and over, for the rest of our lives, it never ends, because we will never be able to be sure that we drew that line where it becomes "horrific" in the right place, that it would absolve us, for trying to protect ourselves by getting away.

Maybe I understand the term wrong but I don't think there is such a thing as owing someone cruelty. I mean, it doesn't make sense from the meaning of the word "owe". I think this is an analogy that doesn't work.

I sort of don't understand why you seem to be taking that word very narrowly -- would "payback" be better? Would it be right to say that you feel there is an expectation that children should pay their parents back -- that's what "owing" means -- for their upbringing if they haven't been abused, "when the parents have need of their children"?

I was asking if children owe their parents for their upbringing, even though as others point out, it is the parents' responsibility that they choose to take on, that children have no choice in the matter at any point -- if children have to pay that back -- then, do children also pay back the physical and emotional blows they experienced? Or to look at it another way: should parents pay back their children, for the times when children keep them company, give them joy, absorb their sorrows, bear the brunt of their anger, parent their parents, look after their siblings, look after the other parent, look after the house, become the vessels through which parents try to fulfil their dreams, find their self-esteem, work out their own issues?

Where does your sense of duty about this come from? Who taught you it? And why do you think that sense of duty would be even necessary, if there is real love, or at least caring? Because the people I know who love and care about their parents, they don't need any sense of duty -- the nursing home or the hospital or anywhere else, you would not be able to tear them away from their parents.

I think as we grow into adulthood, we realise certain things: that our parents, seeming so omnipotent before, are really just older children, with their own dreams and quirks and pains and neuroses, just making it up as they go along; and they don't seem so tall anymore, and we understand a little more, and we forgive and let go. But we also now spend time with children as adults ourselves, or have our own children -- and we see how fragile they are, how easy it seems to break them, just how much that power imbalance is, the power adults have over children, even teenagers, naive and think-they-know-everything they may be. They don't know, and they carry their hearts on their sleeves, and they look to you, as adults, to take care of them, to show them the way. And if there is anything sacred in the world, that is it. And you know, both you and Baby_balrog referred to a kind of East/West or (traditional/modern) cultural divide, where there is more respect and sense of duty to family and our elders. But you must also know, with that comes a cost: the world is still full of children who are born solely to work, to bring an income to the family, to be married off, to be successful and bring some kind of honour to the family, to make their family proud. With that sense of duty comes arranged marriages, honour killings, people who kill themselves because they think they have failed or shamed their families in some way. For me, I always have it on my mind that my parents may want to kill me. (Another reason why I want to keep well away from them.) I have seen them snap; nothing from them would surprise me. There's that duty.

It is a really common narrative, the Western moral decay; but to me it is not decline, but a transitional phase towards progress. The so-called epidemic of children cutting off their parents, just like the epidemic of divorce and other such moral panics, is to me not a sign of moral decline, but of people finally breaking free from the power structures that previously would have kept them unhappy in their lives, when they did not have to be. And just like divorce, we have found the freedom to choose; and after we have broken free, though things seem broken for a while, we re-arrange, we form new families, from our partners and our friends, the people we can really love. And all the good things that we had in families have never gone away -- but they no longer have to be kept in place by some false sense of duty, or fear of social repercussions or shaming. We have more choices now, and when we find our people, we are just as steady and reliable and loyal and caring and selfless and loving, if not more; and it doesn't have to be kept in place by social condemnations and judgements and guilt. It seems a kinder, more compassionate way to be.
posted by catchingsignals at 6:59 PM on July 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


The Tara Parker-Pope article was, rather than it simply not being done well, I think she either has been cut off from her own child, or is very close to someone who is. It is there in the words she chooses, the perspectives she chooses to presents, and the ones she is not interested in; I can't quote everything that leapt out at me, since I've already written too much, but the children all behave in bizarrely inexplicable ways. Those of us who have ever tried to get our parents to understand would be familiar with that perspective: that of the inexplicable children.

But this is not a story of adult children cutting off parents who made egregious mistakes. It’s about parents who were good parents, who made mistakes that were certainly within normal limits.

"egregious", "parents who were good parents", "certainly within normal limits". It is a defence, of their parenting, of who they are as parents. "This is your mother who gave you a nice life and loved you." "We want her in our life." But not, "I hope she is okay." "I miss her." "I hope I didn't hurt her in some way I didn't mean to."

I have no doubt there are children who are just not manageable by their parents, and they absolutely need support. I just would try not to judge any parents or children, because what do I know, and what would be the point? It doesn't matter who is "good" or who is "bad", as long as people can be safe, physically and emotionally. But this article came at a bad time for me. I had just been having to think about cutting off my parents for the third time, because I realised that nothing has really changed, and we are just going to keep hurting each other, even if we both think we mean well. And if nothing can change, at least we should stop hurting each other, wish each other a happy life (and I do wish it for them -- I don't want them to feel bad), and move on, give each other a little peace. And this article -- you know how sometimes things just appear in your life like the universe is trying to tell you something, because the coincidence is a bit much, but hey, remind yourself it's confirmation bias! but this article shook me. It made me doubt myself that much more again, even though I've been trying to make my relationship work with my parents my entire life. The one year I broke contact with them, it was like the clouds finally cleared, for the first time -- the world felt so different. I felt like I had hope. But at other times I kept in contact with them, while trying to keep them at arm's length, trying to preserve my own sanity, and they just pushed, and pushed, and pushed. And this article -- to me it's not just badly done. I think it is irresponsible, or at least inconsiderate, to all the children out there who really need to do this for their survival, but who are already confused, and already wracked with guilt. It seems to me that Tara Parker-Pope was too close to it, and could not see it from the other side, let alone see how it might hurt people who may genuinely need to do this. But then I'm too close to it too, so maybe others read it differently.
posted by catchingsignals at 7:19 PM on July 15, 2010


(or, the article needed to be written, parents should be supported, but not like this.)
posted by catchingsignals at 7:22 PM on July 15, 2010


And yet you came here and immediately took the daughter's side. Just as I took the grandma's. Rashomon, I say. You continue to prove my point about perspective.

I realize I haven't made it clear in earlier comments - I totally agree with you. My perspective is obviously colored by my experiences and emotions, and the things that I have witnessed in my life. I think all I can do is try and better comprehend the side I don't understand (in this case the grandmother).

I have to admit, I am envious that you have a mother who is also a best friend, and that I think it's very rare. How I wish I could have a relationship like that! But every time I have tried it ends up with arguments and hurt feelings. It's not worth it to put all involved through the pain, especially when the other parties won't even acknowledge that there is anything wrong.

Thank you for giving me another perspective to think about.
posted by lootie777 at 8:04 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow. Metafilter is full of some pretty damn unhappy people.

Some people are entirely content, nay, happy, in their estrangement from their parents. Much happier than they would be if they tried to keep pretending that they had the happy little family life that the parent always pretended was there. To outsiders, of course; it wasn't worth expending the effort to keep up the illusion when only family was around.

Heh. Some parents aren't able to say, "But my other kids turned out fine! It was just that one kid who was toxic!" I wonder how such a parent rationalizes *all*five* kids "going bad." And can still have the gall to claim they were, and are, the perfect parent who does everything right. Because she does.

I know there are times when there's just no way to help a kid; I'm personally familiar with such a case. But I still have no sympathy for someone who whines to a newspaper about how their kid won't talk to them.
posted by galadriel at 8:50 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a very interesting topic. In my family I was the oldest and my brother two years younger. The statute of limitations is 8 years for criminal injuries compensation. My case was so bad the state awarded me 20 years after the fact and gave the maximum possible. I was hospitalised many times since 9 months old. The state found my mmother guilty of more than 70 criminal acts against me. Why did my mother hate me so much by her own omission when her boyfriend died when I was 6 months she wished I had died instead and blamed and hated me since. I would be the first to ever graduate with two degrees and launch two companies and become a success where all those I lived on the streets with when I ran away at 13 and lived in the orphanages with committed suicide, are in jail for murder etc. My brother was the love child and would often spy on me at my mothers request and have me beaten till my flesh fell off. He was never abused and he went to an attorney as he now hates our mother because she rejected him when he was 20, but the attorney said, you have no case but your sister does due to over 200 medical documents on record including the time when I was two and my mother threw me against a brick wall caused lesions on my brain causing epilepsy and breaking my fingers my placing razors in the drawer when I was 2 and slamming my fingers in the drawers. She would lock me in dark rooms for months where I was only visited to be giving food, she chained me to beds, duct taped my mouth so I could not scream for help and laughed when I begged her to have the men she had bash and belt me till my flesh fell off. She is a true psychopath and runs a business where she takes care of other people dogs. The police i called telling them my mom is trying to kill me, but because the place looked clean and there were no drugs they believed my mom when she said I was making up stories. I went through all this and my brother is the one who is full of anger, hates the world, can not maintain relationships and abuses me like my mother did calling me every name under the sum for no reason. He never went to college and loses his jobs because he has low tolerance dealing with anger. But they say sometimes the witnesses of abuse suffer more than the abused? He often recalled where he would block his ears and count down so as to block out the cries and screams and violence against me. But I told him you were powerless there was nothing you could do, you were a victim in having to bear that. I don't know why he is so full of hatred considering he was not abused like I was. Is it because men can't forgive or process like women?
posted by ClueHut at 4:56 PM on July 16, 2010


« Older Play like it's 1974!   |   Four Economic Benchmarks We Need Now Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post