I Turned Out OK — Did You?
When you work for a parenting site, where the breakfast debate on the latest research on the HPV vaccine segues into how different forms of praise affect kids, it is bound to find its way into the rest of your life. I often find myself making opinionated statements about parenting to parent-friends, with the utmost confidence.
Not surprisingly, it isn’t well received, probably owing to my complete lack of experience in the parenting department. And rightly so. I’m not sure I’d take it too well myself if a non-parent (or even a parent) remarked, “But you know milk isn’t even that important,” while I tried to coax my kid to gulp down a glassful. I’d probably punch them in the face.
And punches, I am prepared for. Even verbal punches, like: “You don’t know what it’s REALLY like to get a kid to eat veggies.” I can’t argue with that, so I don’t dig out our archived articles and obsessively forward the links to these parents. I simply let it go. But the retort I can’t let go, the response to anything I say that goes against traditional parenting techniques, is the classic: “But I was raised that way, and I turned out OK.”
I have to ask – “But did you?”
We throw this statement around all the time, as a casual affirmation of the fact that no matter how badly parents might have failed at encouraging a healthy diet or composing our tempers, it couldn’t have done much harm, since there is nothing gravely wrong with the adults we grew up to be. When new parents examine themselves, and find they are ‘normal,’ even though their own parents didn’t read seven books on sleep training or ban television from their lives, it makes them feel a little less parental guilt about everything they cannot do perfectly with their own children. I don’t deny that everyone could do with a little less parental guilt. There are enough messages in the world telling parents they’re doing it all wrong.
No, it’s not the attempt at reassurance I take issue with, but the statement of fact. Unfortunately, we have not yet managed to develop a benchmark for ‘turning out OK.’ Maybe someday we will – just like for an ideal haemoglobin level, a psychiatrist will conduct a series of tests and give us a rating on where we fall on the scale of not-OK to OK. But … who would assess the OK-ness of the psychiatrist to pronounce us OK?
The word OK has no meaning. (And not only because I just used it 400 times.)
Our own childhood isn’t simply a benchmark for what not to do. Some of us who claim to have turned out OK might be short-tempered, harsh with words, difficult to please, or stubborn. As parents ourselves, we have the opportunity to recognize the incidents in our childhood that might have prompted these characteristics and to head off behaviour in our children that could lead to lasting traits. To right a few wrongs, so to speak.
When I was an angsty teenager, I often caught myself making mental notes whenever I fought with my mom. “I’ll never do this to my children,” I’d think to myself as I sulked in my room after a yelling match in which no one seemed to hear my side of the story. I think the feeling of being unheard has led me to be less assertive than I’d like to be, though I’m sure that’s not what my parents intended. When I have kids, I might choose to lend an ear, even when they’re yelling.
That choice isn’t a condemnation of my parents. They did many things right that I will strive to imitate. I remember coming home from school one day to find my diary – usually kept under a stack of books in a drawer — lying on my desk. My mom swore she hadn’t read it (and I believed her; the content of those last few pages wasn’t something that would have gone undiscussed if she had). Would I have had a less open relationship with her now, if she’d snuck a peak at my diary then? I think so.
But perhaps that’s why we keep using this phrase. To not say it feels like a betrayal of the most obvious example of love we have, an indictment against our parents, and maybe against ourselves. But to let that keep us from seeking to raise people better than we are feels like a disservice to our kids.
We do years of study to specialize in our fields. Some, like medicine or engineering, require lifelong learning to keep abreast of the latest developments. Why wouldn’t we do this for parenting, too? When I decide to have children I want to know I did my research right. (Perhaps that’s part of my motivation for working at The Swaddle.) At the very least, it will give me better reasons for when I slip up (because I will; we all will).
Of course, when I do become a parent, I might discover that no amount of note-taking prepared me. And maybe I will hand my kids an iPad even though I’ve read all of the studies that say I shouldn’t. But at least I’ll know I’m doing it for myself — out of desperation, or boredom, or whatever — and not for my kids. Not because, “I turned out OK.”
I really have no idea if I did.