Must we be “nice” parents?


Years ago, my son and I were on a walk. He complained about being tired from our “hike” (a thirty-minute stroll through a forest-y nature area), so I cocked an eyebrow and told him stories that began with “When I was a kid…”

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t put up with any crap. They never let me get away with whining about the weather or being tired while on a walk. They usually pointed out they were over 30 years older than me and were handling the hardship just fine.

His response: “Wow, they weren’t very nice to you growing up, were they?”

Huh. That’s your takeaway, kid?

As a child, it never occurred to me that my parents’ strict direction wasn’t “nice.” Granted this is the recollection of an adult with a spotty memory and a set of rose-colored glasses. I was also an easy-going kid. But still — my parents’ discipline made sense to me even then. I accepted it was their job to be tough, and that sometimes involved stern voices and a distinct lack of sympathy. We spent lots of time together and I never felt rejected or unloved; I just figured they were in charge.

Somewhere along the line, it became unpopular for parents to express anger or frustration. Or to admit annoyance. Or to justify actions with authority rather than reasoning. Or to be tough in way that isn’t cheerful and positive.

I’m always looking for the balance between accepting myself and holding myself to a higher standard.

I’m not saying YELLING IS GOOD or that I enjoyed being yelled at (or held accountable in other ways) as a kid.

My point is that my parents’ “niceness” didn’t affect my love for them, or my feeling of being loved.

I told my son this.

I wouldn’t characterize my parents’ toughness as not being nice. I knew they loved me and were always looking out for me.

He considered this. “They’re not like that now, are they? They’re always so nice to me.”

I smiled, thinking about the difference between parenting and grandparenting. Every grandparent I’ve met says that grandparenting is a hundred times more fun than parenting.

I also thought about how we continually strive to be “good parents,” but/and our kids usually see our real, imperfect selves no matter how much we try to cover them up.

I’m always looking for the balance between accepting myself and holding myself to a higher standard. That is: I’m pretty lovable, and I can do better. I try to explore this with my kids as well. When the urge toward self-improvement comes from a place of generosity and responsibility (wanting to to put more goodness into the world) rather than a place of scolding (I suck and need to whip myself into shape), good things happen.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. We continued our walk without wise conclusions. We batted low-hanging branches, sidestepped poison oak, and made morbid jokes about getting lost in the woods and mauled by werewolves. Hopefully something useful got stuck in his head.

I think something useful got stuck in mine.

An earlier version of this post appeared on my Babble Voices blog, The Accidental Expert.

Photo by Ahmad Kadhim on Unsplash

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  • Nice? Not always.

    But I do try to always be kind, even in the midst of correction or discipline. (I fail regularly. But I apologize and we all move on.)

  • I think I kind of know what you mean. We have four kids, three of whom are boys, and we have never been those parents who yelled, “Walk it off!! Man up!!” when any of our kids got hurt. We wanted the boys to be as in touch with their emotions as their sister— and for her to be comfortable with leadership the way society expects boys to be. But there’s a balance in teaching kids that you don’t always get what you want, things aren’t always easy, you have to do tasks you don’t like just because they’re important or even just because they’re hoops to jump through… and so much of it is their individual personalities. I guess that keeps it interesting. 🙂

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