Oct 17, 2013  •  In Depression, Parenting, Personal, Relationships

Screwing Up My Kids

In all my years of receiving therapy, there is one psychologist who stands out in my mind…and not in a good way.

She was an empathic woman who immediately helped me feel at ease. She certainly had a way of helping me feel warm and comforted and understood, and I almost always felt better after our sessions.

But after a few months, I came to a startling realization.

She never made anything my fault.

Now, I know that depression is a disease — an illness with symptoms and consequences that are not always under my control. And I am fully aware that not everything bad in my life is my fault.

But I do know that some of it is.

And I know that I must own up to those flaws and mistakes. Otherwise, how would I ever grow and learn and get better?

It made me even sadder to realize that she almost always seemed to place the blame on my parents. How they put so much responsibility on me, even at a young age. Our emigration to a new country at such a formative period in my life. Their first-generation immigrant mentality of “you can achieve and obtain anything with hard work and discipline.” So on and so forth.

SCN_0016
my family, circa 1985

I switched therapists not long after. But coming to this conclusion did plant some seeds in my mind: mainly, DID my parents screw me up?

Because it’s an undeniable fact that your parents have a huge influence on your life, right? And in raising me the way that they did, did they make me this way? Did they contribute to my struggles with depression and anxiety? If so, how much, and to what extent?

Pondering these questions led to my contemplating my current position, as a parent myself. I know that every parent gets scared that they will screw up their kids in some way, but I became even more paranoid. I began to wonder if even a passing comment to which I hardly give a thought can leave deep psychological scars in my children. And yes, I became convinced that Claire and Aerin were doomed to unhappy and unfulfilled lives as a result of their mother’s pitfalls and shortcomings.

Oh geez, why did I ever choose to become a parent???

That’s when a wise friend stepped in. “Oh yes, you will screw up your kids,” he said.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I was just about to tell him to go screw himself, when he went on to clarify.

“You will screw them up. All parents screw up their kids. My parents did it to me, and your parents did it to you. It’s how you teach your kids to deal with the screwups and unfairness and all the other big bads of the world that makes all the difference.”

My mouth dropped open.

What my friend told me that day still stands as one of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve ever received.

And I still turn to it, especially in these dark days when there seems to be no light in sight and I feel as if I am dragging my entire family into my black hole of gloom.

I hope others will find it helpful too. :-)

14 Responses to “Screwing Up My Kids”

  1. Jason:

    Somehow your friend’s advice comes off as something parents would want to tell themselves to relieve some of their blame/responsibility. Like “there’s nothing you can do, screwing up your children will be good for their character-building (as if they don’t face challenges outside of the home to help them build character?), so don’t worry so much about it…”. Seems so irresponsible.

    I don’t think it’s that simple/inevitable nor do I feel that it’s a parent’s fault (for lack of better word) when the child grows up to face something like depression (a very much individual, and genetic, disease). There are kids grow up facing unimaginable situations than the pressures/parenting you might’ve experienced (not to devalue them in any way) who are free from depression.

    • I definitely understand what you’re saying, but I think that in light of the context (that I, like practically every other parent I know, am living in a society that asks so much from parents that it’s practically turned into a competitive sport, and we’re all trying our best), it’s not so much as “there’s nothing you can do” but more of a “just do your best and teach them to be responsible adults who can roll with the punches and make good decisions for themselves.” I mean, there’s bound to be things I’m doing wrong, and will continue to do wrong, but if I fixate on every little thing I’m just going to drive myself crazy, right?

      Thanks for the comment and perspective, though. I also agree with you that parenting and the affect it has on our children is never simple!

      • Jason:

        The fact that you care so much about how you can be a better parent, that alone makes you a great one.

        Wish you and your family the best :)

    • Emily:

      It’s not about shifting responsibility; it’s realizing that all parents–yours, and, by extension, you–are human, which is inherently imperfect. It’s about realizing that your kids (and you as a kid) have a hugely complex inner universe that, by the nature of their brain development, they think you have intimate understanding of every detail therein, so there are whole worlds of things they’ll never realize you don’t know and *neither will you* until it’s too late. And it’s about realizing that, while it’s clearly not effective to parent your kids by interpreting all their experiences through the lens of your own childhood, due to the way the human brain works, you don’t know a better way to do it and you’ve got to do something. Yes, as your kids get older, you’ll get to know them better and better and you’ll become a better parent *to that kid* (if you’re paying attention, anyway), but you’ll never be able to go back and parent them the way THEY needed to be parented before you knew what that was.

      It’s not just her friend who gives that advice; it’s many parents and adults who are close to their parents–especially the most loving ones. It is absolutely apologetic, but that’s the kicker. There’s a lot about parenting that you do your best, and all you know for sure is that it’s not really good enough, but no one can tell you what would be better. You keep doing your best, and you’re honest with your kids about the fact that all you’re going on is the immense love you have for them, and you hope they can forgive you for the times you failed them. And then, from the practical side, you teach them how to not let someone else’s inadequacies (intentional or not) get in the way of them getting what they need or want. It actually teaches them more about responsibility, because they learn that, ultimately, you have to go for your own goals and not wait for other people to reach them for you. It also teaches them about empathy and compassion because they understand that, when someone fails at something, they may still have been trying their best and if you love each other, you take responsibility (see above) for your own feelings and decide that you care about the person more than their individual mistakes.

  2. I definitely needed to read this on some level. I will try my best with my new baby on the way, but I will also not beat myself up if I am not perfect all the time, and accept that some things are out of my control.

    At the very least, I will learn from my parents’ mistakes and teach them good financial habits, and not gamble away their education money.

  3. […] So for me, it was great to read this heartfelt post on whether or not your parents can really take any of the blame for screwing you up. […]

  4. I think that bit of advice is true if you realize that no child has ever felt like they had perfect parents. No matter what you do, and of course you should do what you think is best for them, they are also participants in the process. They’re bound to have their interpretation on the situation, it’s not a one way street, and there’s no single right way to do things, even between the same children in the same family. So it’s not fair or prudent to be too hard on yourself about the results, you simply don’t have that control.
    I learned this from a friend’s dad who once said: you do your best, but someday, your kids have to learn that your parents are actually human, they’re people and they’re fallible. Sometimes, that can hurt, but it’s the truth and they have to learn it sometime.

  5. Martin Roberts:

    The problem with this article is really simple: you don’t explain what you mean by “screw up”, apparently just assuming that we’ll all understand and agree on what you mean. So to claim that “all parents will screw up their kids” is meaningless until you explain what you mean. As a parent of a young child myself, I’m obviously concerned not to “screw up” my children either, but I don’t personally believe that my parents “screwed me up” and simply to claim that all parents do so just doesn’t seem all that useful to anyone, other than perhaps therapists.

  6. […] Geek in Heels ponders the concept that all parents screw up their kids in one way or another […]

  7. lelnet:

    Depends on what one means by “screw up your kids”.

    I mean, there are a lot of shades in between the hypothetical perfect parent (never observed in nature, often suspected to be a violation of the immutable laws of nature) and the worst parent you can imagine. And unless you work in one of a handful of horrifically-depressing fields, “the worst you can imagine” is probably still a vast improvement on the worst that you could find within a 50-mile radius of your home right now, if you really hunted.

    The key point to be remembered is this: the really bad parents…the ones who do lots of really intense harm to their kids that lasts for life, if not for generations after…well, talk to them about parenting and you’ll never find an ounce of self-doubt.

    I’m not trying to imply that the quality of the job you do scales linearly with your level of neurosis about it, but the notion that it occurs to you to _ask_ yourself if you might be one of the bad ones is pretty good proof that you’re above average.

  8. This is a great post. I often wonder how my behavior is shaping my kids, now aged 10 and 13, but ya, as your friend said – in the end, it is. We’re all building/shaping others lives as we live our own. I too have gone to therapy, and appreciate people like you talking about it; if that were the norm I think we’d be in better shape as a nation/people. Thanks

  9. Aly:

    Great post. So true.. family is complicated. I’m glad I stumbled upon your writing!

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