Every parent makes questionable decisions regarding their children. With the best of intentions and a huge helping of love, parents the world over raise their children while making huge, stupid mistakes, and for the most part the kids turn out fine. Of course, you have your occasional Ted Bundys and John Wayne Gacy Jrs and Sen. Mitch McConnells, but those are outliers. And this has recently become a topic of some fascination for me, as I have recently acquired some children, and I have a strong intrinsic desire not to fuck up their futures, or indeed their presents, by being a terrible parent.
Childhood was, for me, dominated by church and school. The church that I grew up in was a hellscape of rejection and angst for me. From the time the kids in my grade there were old enough to talk, I felt universally rejected by them. I was a slight child, not strong or fast, and my interests in science fiction, LEGO, and precocious (read: bizarre and idiosyncratic) speech habits painted a giant bullseye on my back saying “easy target”. The insults weren’t subtle: “Shrimp” was a favorite, along with corruptions of my name, jabs at my interests, and when my tormentors grew older and larger while I remained the same size, physical assaults. When you’re being pushed up against a wall and having your forehead spat on, your general inclination is to make it stop, but you generally don’t feel the greatest burn of injustice until your parents ask you, bereft of insight or self-awareness, “Was it a wad? Or just a spray?” while contemplating how not to confront the parents of the little shirtbird that did it. Even then, that all this took context within the context of a church ostensibly dedicated to creating people who acted more like Christ was a rich irony that I would not appreciate for years.
Church, such as it was, is as good as any place to start, because my parents were (and I do not believe their views have changed) religious fundamentalists. The Evangelical variety, that elected George W. to office, believe in literal seven-day creation of the earth (the dinosaur bones were put there by God to test our faith) combined with the absurd moral panic about “secular culture” common to so many Evangelicals during that era and beyond. When we weren’t at church, which was three times a week mind you, we were being homeschooled, to keep us1 from absorbing the “liberal secular agenda”, replete with its acceptance of horrors like evolution, basic science, and church / state separation.
Side note: yes, this is the curriculum we used, and yes, it really does look like this. You can find out more about ACE PACEs at The Faithless Feminist. ACE (“Accelerated Christian Education”) was also super-okay with apartheid.
To understand my parents, one must understand the Evangelical movement in the 90s. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Jesus Camp, this is basically what I grew up in, with only very minor differences. Clinically, they believe in the literal truth of all the Bible, even the bad / silly / clearly a bad mushroom trip parts. But a clinical reading of the definition of evangelicalism doesn’t do the reality of our lives justice. Later in life we moved to a much weirder Pentecostal church that had a strong cult of personality aspect around the pastor, and also engaged in common Pentecostal behaviors like enthusiastic hand gestures during songs and very silly services. Evangelicalism has some dark parts, though, condemnation to eternal torment because two mythical proto-humans ate some magical fruit, fervent hatred of LGBTQ people, a squeamishness about sex that borders on the absurd, and a strong belief in corporal punishment. Another salient bit: when you’re one of these Evangelical / Pentecostal types, you tend to see the Sinister Machinations of the Devil in every news report. The President’s use of the phrase “a truly new world” during a State of the Union address elicits audible gasps and shudders, because The Illuminati or something is planning the Mark of the Beast from high atop the evil fortress of whatever. Spirits and demons are very real powerful entities out to ensnare our souls. “Spiritual warfare” is a very real and very concrete concept that involves hardening your soul against the encroaching hoards of darkness, being in a continual state of prayer and communication with God, and a belief that God is speaking directly to you, in the present, through prophesies, and you might choose to listen to a weekly AM radio broadcast hosted by some really paranoid white people about this.
Imagine if you will this swirling morass of trends, philosophies, and a vague persecution complex, and you will understand the constituent ingredients that coalesced into my parents’ parenting philosophy. Not to oversimplify, but it can be largely summed up as “Mostly Bible, not too much ‘worldly’ entertainment, and we are the bosses.”
To dwell too much on the religious aspect of my upbringing would be, I think, a distraction from the point I’m trying to make. Plenty of parents are religious, some of them fervently so, and at any rate, I escaped that world. It’s important to put my parents’ beliefs into context, because it informed a very broad swath of our interactions, but at the same time, the mistakes I’m worried about making aren’t about forcing religion down my2 children’s throats. I worry about the mistakes I already see myself making, the insidious ones that at the time my parents made them, I didn’t think to think were…bad.
My parents were shouters. Anger came in the form of an exponential increase in decibels3. Most of this came from the parent we spent the most time with during the homeschooled years. Often, threats to wait until the other parent got home to deal with us were spat angrily at us, or all manner of scoldings and shamings. I knew, even then, how much I hated the yelling and anger, and I vowed never to do that to my own kids.
Thing is though, little kids are shits sometimes. They’re stubborn, they’re irrational, they have limited cognitive means at their disposal to deal with or even describe their problems in ways that grown-ups will understand. Sometimes they’re spacey. Sometimes they’re silly. Basically, adults, with exceptionally poor impulse control. Getting them to listen is often an exercise in extreme frustration. When you’re sitting on the edge of a tub and you need to brush her teeth because teeth are sort of an important thing she’s going to need both now and in the future, and all she’s interested in doing is grinning at you from the toilet while she s l o w l y crumples WAY too much toilet paper up for the tiny little trickle of pee she just let evacuated from her tiny little bladder and it’s past her bedtime and when little girls don’t get enough sleep they resemble something from a Stephen King novel so would you hurry the hell up and get over here already you don’t need that much toilet paper we need to brush your teeth
You’d feel like yelling too, is my point. And it is the gosh-danged hardest thing in TEH WORLD to not, in that moment, let that tone of irritation and volume creep into my voice. And every time I let it happen, I immediately feel terrible afterward. This is what my parents would have done. Fussing at them and grabbing them to stuff them into their pajamas and get them to wash their hands while not simultaneously wasting an ocean’s worth of water with the taps on full blast is irrational, because they’re young and showing them how Adults Do Adulting by dealing with problems calmly is how they learn, and I can feel anxiety and irritation rising up inside of me every time I fail to act like that. Realizing these as the ghosts of parenting past doesn’t help dispel the urge to do the exact same as was done to you. My parents hit me. They called it spanking. Who knows if they genuinely thought they were doing it for the right reasons. I’d wager that fifty percent of the time it was out of anger, fifty percent of the time it was laziness over choosing a better disciplinary tool. Those tools are right there – keeping calm, redirecting negative behaviors, acknowledging feelings. They’re hard to choose in the moment.
There’s a really sad movie with Nick Nolte called Affliction about this. Nick Nolte’s dad in the movie is a mean son of a bitch, played wonderfully by James Coburn. Nolte is somewhat estranged from his young daughter, who’s a little scared of him. Nolte, struggling to spend more time with his daughter, grasps vainly at being not his father, yet succumbs anyway, through the same process that turned his dad into an asshole and most certainly against his will. He fails, he knows he doomed, but by the time it happens he doesn’t care enough anymore to do anything about it.
I don’t believe that who parented you predetermines how you’ll parent. But it is a stamp, more or less indelible, more or less predictive, on how you interact with the world. I worry that my kids will internalize my angrier, annoyed moments, and remember those – because I remember my parents’ angrier, annoyed moments. I remember the time my father hissed angrily at me to go hang out with the kids on a youth trip that he knew I hated and that hated me. I remember the screaming and object-throwing at home-school. These are not things I want to pass on.
I’m not claiming I was abused. I had loving – if woefully misguided and underprepared – parents, who genuinely wanted the best for me, in their own way. I worry about posting this because I’m afraid they’ll find it and think I’m basically writing an expose on how terrible I think they are. This isn’t the case. I think they did a lot of things wrong, and I don’t want to repeat those mistakes. I think we’re doing a lot of things right – there is very little yelling overall here. We’re teaching them to cook, that sex is a thing that exists in the world, that money is something they need to manage, that we can’t solve all their problems, that they need to be independent people in the world, and that the TV is not a substitute for going outside and playing. (My parents got that one right.)
But even if I avoid my parents’ mistakes, other mistakes are unavoidable. And only through constant vigilance can those not become ingrained patterns that they’ll pass onto their children.
Exit, stage left.
1: My sister and I
2: Some are biologically mine, some aren’t. Either way, I’m a parent to them.
3: Which is actually one-tenth of a bel. Go look it up.