Jackie Kennedy Onassis is credited with saying “If you’ve bungled the raising of your children, nothing else you do matters much.” Whoa. That’s a mouthful.
As someone who believes she’s succeeded on that count, I’m tempted to agree heartily with her. But is it that straight forward, that black and white? What if early indications of how a kid is doing don’t materialize — he suddenly goes ‘bad’ despite a brilliant start; she turns it around after years of going wrong. Just exactly when does someone decide if we’ve succeeded or failed? At 17 or 51 or somewhere in between? And who decides anyway? And do we agree on the definition of success?
Does sincere effort and best intentions factor into the mix? Does anyone truly believe Mr. and Mrs. Pickton deliberating and consciously set out to raise what is alleged to be Canada’s worst serial killer? I haven’t read a word about these people, nor do I even know their names. No doubt psychologists and social scientists will be analyzing all the motivating factors in this tragedy. Will his parents be found blameless in how Willy turned out? Did they see warning signs and ignore them? Did they give him the best they had to give?
Yes, that’s an extreme and extraordinary example. I believe that, as parents, we can only give as much as we’ve got. If our own history is a troubled or deprived one, it’ll take insight, awareness, will, incredible effort, and probably the grace of God to overcome that unfortunate start. It can be done and when it is, it’s often newsworthy.
More often, though, the problems are passed on to the next generation in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Addictions; physical, emotional or sexual abuse; dependency on welfare or just plain underachieving are unfortunately the legacy too many people receive.
In the ego-centric days of the 1980s it was popular, even encouraged, to look for parental scapegoats, and to lay the blame for any and all of our shortcomings, problems, or neuroses squarely at the feet of our parents. It was the day of the dysfunctional family. And who among us couldn’t claim to have come from one? As Oprah is fond of reminding us, her mentor Maya Angelou is the one who said “When I knew better I did better.”
Isn’t that it, in a nutshell? As parents, we’ve all made mistakes, some bigger than others. As we gain awareness and understanding, as we dispassionately look at our own upbringing, we make course corrections. We become aware of the impact our words and actions have on our children. We deliberately choose healthier ways to nurture them along. We learn that we lead by example. We learn when to back off and let the world do the teaching. We learn tough love is the truest love of all.
We also cut ourselves some slack. Sometimes, despite our best intentions and effort, a kid goes bad. We never give up trying and when we know better, we do better. That’s good parenting, from where I sit.
*Reprinted with permission