Parental Narcissism

An old friend of mine from my days as a missionary was telling me about the struggles of some of his children, and I reassured him that all families have issues. His family is not unique. Our kids bring us joy and pain and make us proud and sometimes make us just shake our heads and chuckle ruefully.

Like most of us, he wonders if his children’s issues are “his fault.” Where did he go wrong? What could he have done better? How could he have helped his children make better choices or feel differently about themselves and the world they live in?

I’ve felt those same feelings. I’ve watched each of my children make stupid mistakes and make choices my wife and I had specifically taught them not to make. I’ve had sleepless nights worrying about a child, reviewing over and over all the mistakes I made as a parent and wondering whether, had I not made those mistakes, that child would have avoided the current problem.

My wife sometimes tells me I could and should write a book about being a father, as with six children, I’ve dealt with quite different personalities in different circumstances, even though they all have grown up in the same home with the same parents and are products of the same genes. I always say that I could write a book about how to do parenting wrong, and I’m only half-joking.

But really, when I think about it, taking credit for my kids’ mistakes (and their triumphs) seems a bit narcissistic. If there’s anything every parent understands (or should), it’s that their kids are individuals with their own desires, interests, and thought processes. They are going to choose certain things no matter what. Yes, we have a responsibility to “teach them correct principles” and give them appropriate consequences when they do or don’t make wise choices. That’s what parents do. But in a large sense, they “govern themselves” despite all the teachings and consequences we provide.

Part of becoming an adult involves starting to make your own choices but also accepting the responsibilities that come with those choices. If we took it on ourselves as parents to prevent our kids from making choices, they would be ill-prepared to survive as adults. Unfortunately, I’ve known parents like this who rule their homes by imposing strict rules and controlling behavior with an iron fist. In almost every case, the kids adopt one of two extreme attitudes: hyper-vigilant deference to authority or an equally overdone hostility to authority. Both extremes have their problems, obviously.

I’ve also known families who believe strongly in letting their kids do what they wish and suffer consequences only as they naturally occur with only minimal instruction and no structure. Again, the children of such parents tend not to develop skills they will need as adults. In my experience, more often than not these kids end up dependent on their parents as adults, which is ironically what the parents were hoping to avoid.

Most parents, myself included, live somewhere in between these two extremes. We teach our kids our values, set family rules in accordance with those values, and specify specific consequences when those values and rules are not followed. But, if I’m at all typical, we worry that we have moved too far to either side, and we recognize that what worked with one child may not work with another.

In “Raising Arizona” a couple of doofus convicts steal a baby, with one grabbing a copy of Dr. Spock and saying, “Here’s the instructions.” But there aren’t any instructions. There’s no one-size fits all approach that works with every child in every situation, so we muddle along as well as we can, guided solely by our values, our beliefs, and whatever skills we pick up along the way from observation, experience, or research.

I don’t think my son would mind me talking about how completely unprepared we were for him. Nothing we did produced consistent results, and we really felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants. Then he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, and suddenly everything made sense. Despite not knowing what we were dealing with, we did most of the things we should have done, and he is, as always, a wonderful son. We’re proud of him. But he knows as well as I do that we made a lot of mistakes with him. Not long ago I felt prompted to apologize to him for some of the stupid things I’d done as a father. He told me he loves me and appreciates me for the father I am, and he apologized for being such a pain in the neck growing up.

But I don’t claim credit for him growing up to be a good man with a good heart and a lot of talent. That’s on him. But I do feel pretty good about my parenting with all of my children simply because I know I haven’t screwed up in any major or irreparable ways, I haven’t been abusive, and I’ve done my level best to be the kind of father I want to be.

My missionary friend and I could tell you a lot of stories about mistakes our kids have made and how painful that has been to watch, but we can also tell you about our kids’ talents and personalities and successes–the things we are proud of. Maybe it’s just that we have to take all of it together. Our kids are who they are not because we were good parents (though I think it helps) and not only because of their successes. They, like all of us, have learned from their mistakes.

Maybe parents and children need to cut each other a little slack.

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5 Responses to Parental Narcissism

  1. Rollo Tomasi says:

    Great post! Gave me a lot of comfort. I have felt, for the most part, like I was a crappy father, and that feeling only gets worse as the kids age, imo. I’m not a “horrible” father (i.e., abusive, etc.) but I often feel like I don’t have the smarts or maturity to guide them in the way I should. I agree with you, though, that most of their decisions come from them alone, so I should neither take the credit nor the blame for how they live their lives (but I am proud). I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only father who feels this way. Thanks again for a very timely post (at least for me).

  2. I have seven children who have all left the nest, and still I sometimes say to myself half jokingly, “Sure my kids are different than me; nature seldom makes the same mistake twice”. In many ways I recognize that some of them have done better than I did when I was at their stage of life–some of them.

    As for those whom I have somewhat a different opinion I have adopted the attitude of ‘detach and relax (with compassion)’. I’ll always do what I can for each of them, but the bottom line is they are all adults and I have to treat them as such. Nevertheless, I got off of the guilt train because I came to the realization that the way in which I was reared was far from the ideal, but I recognized this and made the necessary adjustments. I realized that my folks didn’t have a lot of parenting skills because their parents didn’t either. Eventually, though, the buck has to stop with someone and I hope that was with me and that I did to the best I knew how. And the hope is that my kids will do a lot better than I did.

  3. robinobishop says:

    So, should we be persecuted as a mother and father who took our only child at three from the world of foster care, only to place respectful boundaries on his behavior, and be ostracized by him for it after emancipation?

    Do we have the right to be offended that as a high school senior, our son married a homeless young woman who he never introduced to us, while we were on a business trip away from him? How were we supposed to act toward him for doing all that in our absence to find him sleeping in our bed upon our return? He was old enough to fend for himself. We chose not to coddle him. Now a half a life later for him, he still works with the kids at McDonalds as one of them. “Do you still want fries with that?”

    • robinobishop says:

      Fortunately, at 34 he continues to act as consistently toward us as always. He remains absent unless we start paying him for the privilege of seeing our grandkids. The same Millennials who say we (boomer parents) have no right to expect anything of them, cannot live their own law reciprocally. Really the arrogance, does he think he dictates the terms of our communication?

  4. Ray Agostini says:

    Children only realise the sacrifices made by their parents, when they grow up to be parents themselves. It’s a sort of “karma cycle”. To this day, I remember so many “little things” (I thought at the time) my parents did for me, which, in retrospect, now seem like huge sacrifices, having taken on the perspective of a parent myself. Like calling my father to pick me up when I didn’t have a driver’s license, from anywhere, at almost any hour. Or my mother, whose washing, laundry, ironing and feeding, and unconditional love, took on a new perspective when I went to boarding school and had to fend for myself.

    We can never repay our parents for their unselfish generosity, and we will never appreciate it until we become parents ourselves. All we can do is offer our children the same unselfish generosity, realising that it may be a long time before they really appreciate it.

    “Walking a mile” in your parents’ shoes, can be a very humbling experience.

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