Is successful parenting just the luck of the draw?
|Parenting is a crapshoot. What determines who succeeds and who fails in this most critical life role seems as random to me as the throw of the dice on any table in Vegas. Certainly the statistics of the numerous studies on this subject indicate that “children do best when raised by their two married, biological parents who have low-conflict relationships1.” But the structure of the American family continues to morph at an amazing pace. How many families do you know today who match that definition?
For more than a decade, I lived with my husband and son in Provo, Utah. Located on the benches of the the beautiful Wasatch mountains, it is a clean, pretty city with virtually no crime. The home of BYU and UVU, it has a very well-educated citizenry. I seriously doubt there is a single city in the country with a higher concentration of families who actually meet the aforementioned criteria. All of these factors have contributed to a number of well-deserved accolades, and Provo is regularly lauded for some new “Best City” award.
Yet this same town is often derisively referred to by other Utahns as “Happy Valley.” There is literally no diversity, and if you are not a member of the dominant faith, it can be a pretty exclusionary place. My husband and I often joked about the eerie Stepford feel of the neighborhood where we lived. And the thing is, for every “successful” parent I knew there, I could match that example with its polar opposite. People whose 20-something kids were still living at home, unable or unwilling to keep a job, long before the economy had anything to do with it. Kids addicted to drugs or alcohol, in and out of juvenile facilities, habitual thieves, and even a few who landed in prison for more serious offenses.
So I don’t think family demographics are the silver bullet of parenting success. Perhaps it is something more personal than that. Maybe more a matter of whom your role models were growing up, and what you learned of good parenting from them. Everyone is familiar with the famous athlete or celebrity who attributes all their success to their Mom, or less commonly, their Dad. There is also data that supports the negative case. According to the DreamCatchers for Abused Children Group, children who are abused are six times more likely to become abusive parents2. Is parenting something you “inherit” then?
Again from personal experience, I am not sure how often that holds true. My mom’s parents were both alcoholics. Her mother was abusive, both physically and emotionally. These were not things I learned until I was much older, and I have few details as it was a very painful thing for her to talk about. She passed away almost ten years ago, and other than her children, none of her family is still alive to question. She only made it as far as the eighth grade in school, though she always loved to read and learn new things. Getting pregnant with me when she was only 15, she left home and had little support. When I was four, her father committed suicide, and it was my mom who found his body.
Not such a great environment in which to learn parenting, to say the least. Yet as I and many others can attest, she was the most devoted, caring mother anyone could ask for. I knew every day of my life that she loved me unconditionally. She is the one I credit with my own success, teaching me the values of hard work, a positive attitude, and most importantly the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Never a church-goer or particularly religious, she constantly reinforced this message in the things she did and the way she treated friends and strangers alike.
I have no explanation for how my mother beat the odds, with so much against her. But I think myself and my siblings are proof of her success. All of us are productive, tax-paying citizens and relatively well-adjusted, each with children of our own now. While I didn’t become a parent until I was 33, and only had one son to practice on, it was her example that has helped me the most. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and probably will continue to do so. It turns out you never stop being a parent once you start. But his Dad and I are justifiably proud of the man he’s becoming.
With my mother’s example to me, I do believe good parenting is something that can be taught, and thus learned, regardless of the family structure or demographics involved. Why don’t they teach us more about parenting in school? Even if fewer people are having children nowadays, most people are statistically likely to have at least one child in their life. The key aspects of parenting often correlate to other life roles as well. Even casinos have classes for patrons to learn the rules of the game.
Unfortunately, I also believe that you can do all the right things, love your kid, set good boundaries, be consistent in enforcing the rules and still there is no guarantee you will “win.” You can eat dinner together every evening, and read to your child at bedtime. Those, too, are things I believe made a difference in my family. Yet lots of parents work hard to follow these same practices. The fact is, there are just so many things today that can sabotage the best parent. A healthy dose of luck is sometimes the only way to explain why some succeed and others fail. Who are their teachers, what friends do they make, how do they process the millions of media messages they are bombarded with daily? While craps may be the game with the best odds of winning in Vegas, the only sure way to win is not to play at all. I have said more than once that some people should just not be parents. But, if you do choose to play, I hope that Lady Luck smiles on your efforts.
1Parke, M. (2003, May). Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? What Research Says About the Effects of Family Structure on Child Well-Being. Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy. Available at: www.clasp.org.
2Potter, S (2009, September 29). “Statistics.” 10 Apr. 2012. http://dreamcatchersforabusedchildren.webs.com/whatischildabuse.htm.