Four traits common to bad parents

By Shelley McKinney
web posted April 16, 2001

As long as there are parents who agonize over whether or not their children are living a happy, fulfilled and self-realized life, there will always be a need for parenting sections in bookstores, and magazines of the same genre lining up at the newsstand. The amount of conflicting advice you can find will either comfort you or confuse about your skills as a parent who is hopefully raising a child that will grow up to be a decent and respectable citizen, rather than a felon incarcerated in a state prison.

I know about these books because I have done my share of buying (just for the record, I gave up on trying to find any kind of sensible advice from any parenting magazine long ago.) My kids are still pretty young -- much too young for either me or my husband to have any kind of clue about how they'll eventually turn out -- but I figure that knowledge is power and the more we know about child-rearing, the more empowered we'll be to raise good kids. But let's face it: we all know at least one really great couple who turned out a real stinker among several other nice kids, a thorn among the roses. It could happen to any of us -- it has happened to some of us. Sometimes kids deliberately decide to travel the wrong road, no matter how careful their parents have been -- but we parents don't have to help them make this trip.

There are some books out there that offer wisdom and have been a great help to many. There are others that are utter foolishness and seem to be guarantors of how a well-meaning parent could turn loose a selfish, spoiled monster on a largely unsuspecting general public. You have to read them intelligently and apply a generous dose of common sense and weed out the stupid ones. I'm sorry to tell you that the books offering poor advice outnumber the wise ones by about four to one. But in the interests of those who don't have the time or the energy to do all that searching for the grain among the chaff, here is a checklist of four main traits that combine to form the hallmark of bad parenting. Are you doing any or -- God in heaven forbid it -- all of these four things? If so, you'd better get a grip on the reality of original sin and stop being such an amoeba.

#1 -- Bad parents are immediately defensive when their child is criticized and hasten to discredit the critic.

Yes, yes, I know....a parent's first instinct is to protect and defend, but there are a lot of parents who have carried that to an incredible extreme. If a teacher tells you that your little paragon of perfection is not reading up to grade level, how do you respond? If your child's soccer coach isn't giving your kid much playing time because the child still needs to work on some basic ball-dribbling, goal-kicking skills, what do you do?

Well, if you're a bad parent, the first thing you do is shift the criticism onto the teacher, the coach, the probation officer. "Well, if you weren't such a jerk and a liar, you wouldn't say such things about little Hezekiah!" Make sure you yell at those people: That will clue them in to the fact that you're a bad parent and that they shouldn't expect anything approaching reasonable maturity out of you or your kid. They'll write you off as a lost cause and turn their attention elsewhere, as well they should.

#2 -- Bad parents expect everybody to be as crazy about their kids as they are.

An example: I was eating dinner with my family at a restaurant and we were sitting in a booth. The people in the booth who backed ours had a cute little baby girl with them who was probably one year old. The toddler made it clear to her parents that she did not wish to sit in her high chair. Instead of enduring a few moments of unpleasantness as the parents, in their turn, made it clear to their daughter that she was indeed going to sit in the high chair, they wimped out. That's a common trait among bad parents, by the way: they don't even have the fortitude to stand up to a pre-verbal kid that weighs less than 25 pounds, which is a sorry sight. God help them when that kid is sixteen and wildly hormonal.

So the toddler was allowed to "sit" in the same side of the booth as her mother, although what she was actually doing was standing up and hitting me in the back of the head with the Frisbee that came as a fun prize with her kiddie dinner. Please understand that the girl was not inflicting blunt force trauma upon my skull; it was more like a tappitty-tap than a WHAMWHAMWHAM. But believe me, it was still annoying, especially when it was allowed to continue throughout the meal. My husband offered to trade places with me, but he was in the Army and I figured that if he got whopped one too many times, he'd end up making those idiot parents drop to the floor to give him a hundred push-ups.

Every now and then, the child's mother would make a half-turn in the booth and say, "Oh, I'm so sorry -- they're just so active at this age." Uh-huh. Then she'd say to the little girl in a bright, falsely-stern voice, "Now, sweetie, you mustn't hit the nice lady on the head! That's not nice! Don't be a naughty baby!" and then she'd turn back to me and give me a laughing little moue of apology as her kid biffed me on the head again, as if to say, "Isn't she just a mischievous little cutie?"

You may accuse me of being a misanthrope if you wish, but this "nice lady" would like to say that, no, I didn't think her moppet was cute. I wanted to send her to the zoo so that she could be caged with all the other wild monkeys. And I wanted to send her clueless parents to the lions' enclosure. At feeding time.

It's never cute when kids, even little bitty ones, are allowed to misbehave in a way that interferes with another person's ability to enjoy a quiet dinner, a good book, a church service, a movie, whatever. You know why? Because parents are the only people (with the exception of the child's grandparents) who think that their kid is just limitlessly adorable. Other people may think she is cute to look at, yes. Still others, if your child happens to be well-behaved, will either appreciate your child's good manners or, with time, come to genuinely enjoy her. But no one else will ever feel about your child the way you do, and bad parents never want to believe this is true. Hey, who could possibly mind being whacked in the head with a plastic toy if it's being done by such a sweet little sugarbritches?

#3 -- Bad parents cover for their children and protect them from the consequences of their actions.

Suppose you're in the grocery store with your eight year old and when you come out, you notice your child furtively trying to hide a candy bar that you know you didn't pay for. You also know that she didn't pay for it.

The first reaction is probably common to all parents: You get that sinking feeling that you're going to have to deal with something you'd rather not deal with at this time, this place, this moment. In fact, you'd rather not deal with this, ever. But you have to.

Even bad parents know what they should do in this situation, but the unfortunate thing that separates bad parents and good parents is that bad parents frequently don't do what they know they should do, or they only do it halfway.

A really bad parent would take the candy bar away from the child and give her a big scolding, eating the candy later after the kid has gone to bed for the night. A more ordinary bad parent would simply tell the child to go back to the store and put the candy back where she got it and then manufacture some useless and unrelated punishment like sending the kid to her room for an hour before dinner.

In order to acquaint children with the idea that all actions have a reaction, they need to experience consequences for the choices they make, both good and bad. In this instance, a child should not only have to return the candy, but should also have to make an explanation to someone at the store's courtesy desk.

Whoa! Wait! If you're muttering to yourself, "Well, THAT certainly seems unnecessarily harsh," you'd better watch out -- you could be coming down with a case of bad parenting.

Children are rash and impulsive little things and they need to learn to control themselves. They learn self control by understanding that bad choices have bad consequences. A liberal dose of embarrassment and knee-knocking fright generally go a long way in convincing them that this is so, and I speak from personal experience.

My own child's felonious tendencies were thwarted earlier in the year after she stole a piece of candy off her teacher's desk. I was embarrassed and she was frankly terrified to make her confession to the teacher, but we soldiered through it. She cried buckets of remorseful tears and I told her that stealing is always, always a wrong choice. Her father and I even took the extra step of requiring her to make restitution for what she'd done by having her spend her allowance money ($1.50 a week) on a new bag of candy for the teacher; we believe that restitution is often a necessary follow-up for repentance -- and that's a difficult concept for many of today's timid parents to grasp. We hugged her and told her we loved her, yet our refusal to protect our daughter from the consequences of her action allowed her to go through a process that ended in true contrition, for now, anyway. There's always the possibility that this problem will crop up again, and if it does, my husband and I are ready to deal with it.

#4 -- Bad parents have never found an excuse they wouldn't use in order to justify their child's actions or attitude. This trait harkens back to trait #2.

Another example: I have a friend named Dan who used to be a fifth grade teacher in a small Christian school. As he perceived it, one of his major duties of the year was to prepare his students for the large public middle school they'd shortly be attending. Instead of being one of sixteen students in a homey little classroom, they were each going to become one of two-hundred students in a big, impersonal middle school filled with harried, busy teachers who weren't going to have either the time or the inclination to give these kids a lot of personal attention and they -- little fledglings -- needed to learn how to fly on their own.

One of Dan's rules in the class was that when a student was finished with his work, he should find something to keep himself busy and allow others to study uninterrupted. To that end, the students could either read a library book or do one of the many extra-credit worksheets made available for their use. According to him, those worksheets were worth five extra points and students could choose math, grammar, reading, writing, science or history as they pleased -- a veritable buffet of learning, a little something for every academic interest.

There was one boy in the class who refused to make use of any of these things. He didn't want to do any worksheets; he thought they were all boring, every single one of them. He didn't want to read a library book; reading was boring. What he wanted to do was use up all of his notebook paper in drawing race cars.

Dan was an old-fashioned teacher and he disapproved of this. First of all, he told me, it was a waste of time and second of all, it was a waste of paper. School is for learning, and he believed strongly that if the boy wanted to draw race cars, he should draw them at home. Or during the weekly art class, which is an acceptable time for doodling. Or even during the after-lunch free time, when the students had twenty minutes to themselves before the afternoon's study began.

The boy refused to comply and consistently challenged his teacher's authority. When he had exhausted the limits of classroom punishment, Dan sent a note home to the boy's parents.

This would be a good time to mention that this boy's mother was the school's principal.

Dan told me that the note he received back the next morning was a classic bit of bad parenting: He, the teacher, needed to realize that little Maximilian was a gifted and creative child. Max deserved to have time to exercise his talent for drawing and any worthy teacher would understand that he was a boy whose soul yearned for art.

The note from the principal my friend received in his mailbox in the faculty lounge later that day was a classic example of how bad parenting can corrupt a person's ability to reason. The note, which the administrator hastened to assure him had nothing to do with her son and his artistic gift, was written to inform Dan that he was to have a one hour period of artwork each week, in addition to the art period taught by another teacher who came weekly to all the classrooms in the school, round-robin. He was also to keep a stack of white drawing paper available for any student who finished his work and wished to exercise his talent and creativity.

When my friend left that school at the end of the year, he never looked back. He found a new career and married a wonderful woman. They are raising two kids who give promise of turning out to be wise and warm-hearted adults.

The boy ended up running afoul of the law a few years later, which was not an enormous surprise, considering the extent to which his mother was willing to go in order to excuse him from accepting authority and responsibility. Up until that rude awakening, everyone was required to change to accommodate the boy -- he was perfect as he was. The police and our judicial system were of a different opinion, and he was sent off to experience the joys of one of those boot camp programs for delinquents. Maybe that was a wake-up call for him.

There are so many pitfalls in parenting. No parent wants to raise a brat, a beast, a shooter, or a Clinton, but some of us do in spite of our best intentions. As I said, I am willing to point out that my own children are young -- how they'll turn out, I don't know. We have our hopes, of course. Our plan is to teach them self-control, personal integrity and a sense of responsibility to themselves, their families and their fellow citizens, even when it hurts both them and us. Frankly, without God's help and a lot of prayer, we'd probably manage to screw them up somehow. But as I said, I have my hopes that they'll grow up to make us proud, and I hope the same for you and your kids. They're about the only hope we have for a decent world.

Shelley McKinney is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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