Of character and parenting


My daughters and I grew up in vastly different families, so it's not surprising that we hold differing opinions about family dynamics. One of the areas in which we part ways dramatically is the value we place on good parenting.

If there is one fundamental belief that I developed as a result of my upbringing, it is that parenting is the most important role anyone plays in life.

I don't care how accomplished or otherwise wonderful a man or woman is when it comes to career, athletics, academics, or social relationships – if that person doesn't strive to give his or her children the time, attention and love that children need, then that person lacks character in my book.

My oldest daughter, on the other hand, told me recently that she thinks a person can be a lousy parent – yet still be a good person.

I couldn't disagree more; although I understand how she and I came to such different conclusions.

My daughters had a mom who was involved and attentive and made mothering her priority, and they have gone on to thrive as adults – despite my making many mistakes, and despite a dad who was minimally involved in their lives.

By comparison, my own upbringing was chaotic, owing to my parents' drinking problems and marital conflicts. My mom and dad were hands-off in the extreme, and provided little guidance as I floundered through youth – often playing surrogate parent for my three younger siblings.

In many ways, I raised myself – and don't recommend it. I was well into adulthood before I overcame the insecurities I struggled with in those years, or attained any level of self-confidence.

So it should not be surprising that I went into parenting intent on doing the opposite of what my parents did – and in putting everything I had into the effort.

Emphasis on the word "effort."

Effort is everything
If you struggle with parenting because you grew up with no good role models – due to having absentee or lousy parents yourself – that's one thing. I have abundant sympathy for anyone who was short-changed when it comes to parental role models, and I'm well aware that some kids grow up in more challenging circumstances than mine.

Thanks to parenting education programs and support groups, I learned enough about parenting to muddle through; but what of those who grew up with drug-addicted or abusive mothers and fathers? As parents, they have learning curves much steeper than mine, and I am not inclined to criticize their efforts to parent.

The lousy parents I cannot tolerate are the ones who make no effort.

These are the ones who prefer their comfort, convenience, and selfish pursuits to the company of their children. They prefer to let spouses, teachers, and coaches (or electronic entertainment) handle the nitty-gritty of daily child-raising and jump at every chance to dodge family time by retreating to their TV or hobbies.

These are the parents that I judge unworthy of the name, and whose character and integrity I question.

The measure of a man
If that seems a harsh assessment, keep in my mind that my strong feelings on the subject run both ways.

In other words, I value good parenting so highly that I can forgive all kinds of faults in people who are good moms and dads. You can be a screw-up in every sense of the word – bungle your job, botch a house repair, back your car into mine in a parking lot – and I will admire you if I know you're a good parent.

A few years into singlehood, in fact, I realized that I was evaluating my dating prospects on the way they fathered. Seeing a man spend quality time with his kids – the kind I craved from my own dad, and never saw my ex give my girls – can make me melt in a way that even movie-star good looks cannot.

It's no coincidence that all three of the men that I've become close to since my divorce – my boyfriend, best friend and another good friend – have been excellent fathers. Their values in general, and especially their family values, were overwhelmingly the most important factor that attracted me to them.

To my single friends, I continue to say that it's hard to go wrong using quality of parenting as your standard for judging prospective partners.

And to the rest of you – whether you're parents in the most hectic stages, or enjoying the leisure of grandparenthood: You may not be good at your job. You may be clumsy, broke, unattractive or socially inept. You may think yourself a failure, or a pitiful excuse for a human being. But if you are a parent who has made the effort, who has put everything you have into bringing up kids, my hat is off to you.

One of the hardest things about parenting is that it takes a couple decades to raise a child to adulthood and to see how your efforts have paid off.

And one of the saddest things about parenting is that despite our valiant efforts, some kids don't turn out okay.

All the more reason to give it everything we can.

Because wouldn't you at least like to look back on those all-important years of parenting and say, "I gave it my best shot?”
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June 2017
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