Am I a Good Parent?

(whew 3 months is a long time between posts!)

I don’t much follow business news anymore but my 73 year old father-in-law turned me on to the Financial Times management columnist Lucy Kellway whose no nonsense approach to office life I continue to find insightful and entertaining. Because I don’t have a paid subscription to the Financial Times, I listen to Lucy’s weekly column as a 5 minute podcast (smartly called “Listen to Lucy”) on Stitcher (next to Facebook, my most well-touched iPhone app.)

This week Lucy had an engaging column “Am I a Good Parent?” which was the message of a recent UBS online banner ad campaign, the implication of course being that good parents provide financial stability for their children. If only it were that easy. Seeing the question as the minefield that it is with no universal standards for what makes a good parent and no independent arbiter to judge, Lucy posited the question to 40 of her work colleagues over email. None of the working women responded (:<) All of the men responded “Yes” and their whys were nicely bucketed into three categories: 1) They have been involved in the process through time and sacrifice, 2) The end result, treating child as product, has turned out well. 3) My kid, treating child as customer, tells me I’m doing a good job. Lucy counters each of these responses as incomplete answers finally concluding, “It’s a labor of love. Good and bad don’t come into it.”

While I agree with her in principle, I find the conclusion somewhat unsatisfying. As parents we want to know we are doing a good job. We appreciatively hear and file away the parenting attaboys we receive. We glory in the moments when our children think us cool or better yet, right. But more than affirmation, we want hard evidence that we are doing it well at least most of the time. Yes it’s a labor of love where the traditional x’s and o’s don’t apply but the “wait for launch and see” approach seems a reckless gamble with what UBS and we know is our biggest investment.

There are some places in life, car shopping for example, where comparisons are helpful. As much as we know comparison parenting is unreliable because it’s a moving target (your peers are not my peers), sometimes we can’t help ourselves. Sometimes a peer comparison makes us feel cheerfully normal but just as often it makes us feel smug or inferior. And even when it makes us feel normal we have this lurking feeling that each child and family culture is so unique that our momentary relief of being “on benchmark” is fleeting at best. Plus, unlike a car, you can’t get under the hood of another household to see how things really look on the inside when visitors aren’t allowed.

Process or time put in seems a decent proxy for good work but that always feels like a call to arms between working and stay at home parents. I’ve lived on both sides of the divide and know there is good and bad in both camps. A parent may give impressive amounts of their time by coaching their kid and then bully them into better performance. Another parent may have fewer, less publicized hours to give but with greater intention and connection. Certainly there is a baseline of time investment in order to be an effective parent as well as healthy doses of expansive, unscripted time but the scale is different for each child. Not to mention the secondary benefit to children when they see their parent invested in and renewed by meaningful work. I stand with Lucy. We can’t agree on one process.

As children get older, the temptation to look at child as product is very compelling. We start laying claim to their physical appearance as soon as they are out of the womb and the land grab continues with each achievement they earn, particularly in areas we either had our own success or could be credited for helping them discover. It’s tempting because they are in some senses a product of us and their environment which we either carefully or haphazardly created but if they were merely a product we’d know how to recreate them to spec. Anyone with multiple children can tell you that is both impossible and hilarious. The idea of looking at child as consumer is even more problematic because we know the world won’t be so generous.

When I asked my own children the question “What makes a good parent?” the first thing one of them said was: “All parents make mistakes.” It’s always good to get that out of the way first. He then went on to say, “Kids who have good parents are respectful, obedient and operate within a set of values which may or may not be the same as their parents.” While that sounds mostly good (Judge Mom wished that he had said compassionate over obedient) and easy for kids with a predisposition towards compliance, the idea of “good parents have good kids and bad parents have bad kids” is wrought with so many problems and exceptions that it only took two minutes for my nine year old to remind us all about the story of Matilda – good kid, horrible parents.

The one thing that Lucy didn’t entertain was measuring ourselves as good parents by how purposefully we animate virtue to our children, or what David Brooks terms “eulogy virtues vs resume virtues.” During my discussion with my kids, one of them explained that he thought parents over focused on teaching life skills (resume virtues) like how to hold a fork or how to do laundry when “as humans, we can figure a lot of that stuff out on our own.” But eulogy virtues like joy, peace, patience, kindness, humility, generosity, gentleness, self-control need to be taught by people in proximity. It requires a combination of a few words, a lot of action, and dogged consistency. Who else would willingly sign up for that job?

“How To” teaching only requires that we know our subject, “How to Be” teaching demands a reflex of character that’s only there if you are actively committing to living out what doesn’t always come natural every day. It is easy to be kind when we aren’t irritated; it’s hard to show kindness in the middle of a shitstorm. It is easy to have oatmeal for breakfast; it is harder to have oatmeal at a breakfast buffet and not let the entire table know about our restraint. Our kids need to receive our gentleness when they make a horrible mess and extra doses of it when that mess embarrasses us. They need to see us activate our strengths and be vocally self-critical of our weaknesses. They need us to show them examples of how joy doesn’t erase suffering but sometimes springs from it. With intention around virtue, seeds are planted and blooms eventually spring but it's often slow and not always in the places you expected.

With this definition, the question of whether or not one is a good parent is no more measurable than any of the previous attempts but I sense it’s a better question we can answer for ourselves because we will find the answer somewhere deep in our bones. It’s an answer we aren’t obliged to share over email.