The Secret Life of Parents
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
--Proverbs 22:6 KJV
I hate this Bible verse. Allow me to explain why.
Before my wife and I adopted our sons, I was so judgmental when it came to other people’s children. I believed any misbehavior on the child’s part was the result of their parents’ inadequacies or poor parenting choices. I would see the child melting down in the middle of Target and shake my head at the bad parent who had somehow let things get to this disastrous point. “When I’m a father,” I arrogantly thought, “that won’t be me.”
Of course, when I became a parent, I cursed my former hubris. Every time it was my kid throwing the mother of all temper tantrums in a public place, I could hear my former self judging my current self. My wife and I are good parents, but we’ve learned the hard way that the temperament of a child may have very little to do with their parents’ skills or lack thereof. Now, when I spot a self-righteous parent with angelic well-behaved children in tow looking down their nose at the parents of the child losing their mind in the grocery store, I think, “You don’t even know how good you have it. You think your kids’ behavior is due to your awesome parenting, but really they just got the obedient DNA. You should thank your lucky stars their genes of willful defiance stayed recessive!”
I talked recently with a friend of mine who is a single mother and one of my parenting heroes. Over the years, she has unfairly beaten herself up and blamed any and all kid issues on what she couldn’t provide as a single parent. She shared with me about another family whose kids were friends with her own that she admires. She had always wished her own family unit could be like theirs--intact with two parents, extended family nearby offering love and support, a bunch of healthy kids who succeeded without any apparent difficulties. My friend was rocked with grief when one of the teenage boys in this other family committed suicide last year. For all my friend knows, there were no missed warning signs, no history of depression, no precipitating events, just a horrible and tragic death. Even the families that seem to do everything right may know inexplicable pain beyond measure.
In my role as a minister, I have walked with families in which the parents were hardly parents at all, but somehow their children not only survived their parents’ abuse and neglect but thrived. Likewise, I have known families in which the parents did everything nearly perfect and who exhibited superhuman strength and grace only to have children lost to alcohol, drugs, mental health conditions, crime or death. Sometimes our desire to draw a causal relationship between a child’s actions and a parent simply cannot find fulfillment; there is just no line to draw between the two. It’s a strange thing to realize how much power you have to screw up your kid’s life, yet somehow at the same time so much more is beyond your control.
I haven’t ever written or spoken publicly about my own struggles as a parent. I’m leery of exploiting my kids’ stories for my job. But let’s just say I have them. I’ve had days and nights filled with tears, self-recrimination, and pain greater than I have known in any other part of my life. I’ve learned firsthand the loneliness that comes in parenting when you experience something with a child that doesn’t line up with the happy family pictures shared on Facebook and Instagram by all the other parents you know. I’ve seen the judgmental stares of teachers and school administrators who believe I wasn’t doing my parental job. I know what it is to feel like you are the only one who just doesn’t get the “simple” job of being a parent.
What I’ve learned from my experience in parent support groups and the confidential meetings I’ve had with parents as a minister, that there is so much pain out there hidden among parents. The amount of shame parents carry over things with their kids that are beyond their control is immense--I know from firsthand experience. The marketplace is filled with countless “experts” telling you what you are doing wrong as a parent, and there are so few to tell you the humbling truth that far more is outside of your control as a parent than within it.
I hate Proverbs 22:6, because I feel like it boils down one of the most complex things a person can ever do--be a parent--into a simple equation: “do A and you will get B as a result.” Oh yeah? What happens when you get C or D or Z or some variable that isn’t even in the alphabet? A kid is not a robot you program; they are mysteriously complex beings set loose in the world, and you as a parent are only one thing among who knows how many more that shapes their course in life. I’ve known too many who have been excellent parents but whose kids made choices or carried out actions that defy all known rules of logic. I believe there is a conspiracy of shame among parents today, as if we all have some kind of unspoken agreement not to acknowledge the pain in families all around us. This secret life of parents is a painful one. I so wish we could risk being vulnerable with one another to tell our secrets.
If you are one of those parents who feels satisfied in your own parenting and how your kids are turning out, trust me, it has less to do with your parenting skills than you think. If you are one of those parents who feels like you’ve done everything wrong and your kids’ problems are all due to your inadequacies, trust me, it has less to do with your parenting skills than you think. Ask around, the secret pain of parents is all around you. You can find it in support groups meeting in church basements, AA groups gathered everywhere and in the hearts of desperate parents all around you on the brink of breaking down from trying to pretend they’ve got it all together.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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