I was chatting with a friend from church, Susan. She has brown hair and is in her early 30s, with a slim and short frame. She is close to the same age as me, and we are both married. She and her husband have two children, while Mel and I have three. We were chatting about friends we’d grown up with who had struggled with success in multiple aspects of life. We talked about men who couldn’t stop cheating and had already blown through two or three marriages by 30. We talked about women who had done the same. We talked about friends who refused to get jobs, who couldn’t stay sober, or who spent time in jail.
Essentially, we were trying to make sense of these people we’d known who could have been more, but never really achieved it. We tried to draw lines between them and their parents, and we wondered what the connection was.
It all came up because we were discussing each of our children and wondering how they will turn out. There is something about looking at the examples around you, the people you grew up with, the ones who have struggled because of poor decisions and the ones who haven’t, and wondering what went right and what went wrong, and how you can apply all that to your children.
I think a lot of parents do this. They make predictions while looking at their kids, and they wonder if there is something, some intervention, they should be making now to prevent some nasty habit that will prevent their successful future.
The fact is, no parents really know what they are doing, and there is a strong possibility that no matter how great of a parent you are, how well you teach your children responsibility, educate them on kindness and humanity, or throw opportunities at them, they very well might grow up to be the bad egg of the family — the child who fell a little too far from the tree.
And to be honest, as a father of three, the thought of this scares the hell out of me. I truly love all three of my kids, and I 100% want them all to grow up to be successful and kind. If I were to try to define what I want for my kids, it would be this: I want them to be a better person than I am.
I want them to be better parents. I want them to make more money. I want them to be better educated and live in a nicer part of town. I want them to love the person they are with, and I want them to choose someone who feels the same about them. I want them to view marriage as an equal partnership. I want them to give when someone needs help, and I want them to love everyone regardless of race or gender.
But figuring out how to get them there is going to take a million and one decisions, and lessons taught in a million and one locations, and at a million and one stages of development. And the fact is, there seems like there is no way for me not to screw something up.
But it gets more complicated when I look back at friends. Some of them had really good parents from my view, but they didn’t grow up to be all that great of people. And then there are the ones with really bad parents, but who grew up to be wonderful people. And when I think about that, I wonder exactly how much influence I actually have on their development.
This becomes particularly complicated when I consider my father was seen as the bad egg. He spent a lot of my high school years in jail, and he died from his addictions shortly after divorcing his fourth wife. He set up families like franchises, and when one didn’t work out the way he wanted it to, he cut his losses and moved on. For a long time, I wondered if I was destined to follow his path. And the really sad part is a lot of people predicted that I would.
But I didn’t (at least not yet). Not that I’m massively successful — I’m not. But I am in my first marriage, I’ve never been to jail, I don’t drink (mostly because of my father), and I finished college.
So much of my motivation to do well in life was to not turn out like my dad because I’d seen firsthand how damaging it can be. And when I think about that, I wonder if my father’s bad example was actually good for me — which is a complicated and overall scary thought.
There are so many factors when it comes to raising kids, and the last thing I’m trying to say is that parents should simply take their hands off the wheel and let God do the driving. But what I do often think about — and I think most parents do — is that there is a serious amount of inevitability in raising children, and regardless of what you do as a parent, one or more of your children might grow up to be a bonehead. They might grow up to be an unmotivated asshole, and you will be left wondering where you went wrong raising them. This isn’t to say that parents don’t always love their kids. I honestly can say that I will unconditionally love my children. But there is something particularly bittersweet about loving someone while being disappointed with their actions. I know this because I often saw it in my grandmother’s eyes each time I drove her to the county jail to visit her son, my father.
And ultimately, I think that’s what Susan and I were trying to verbalize that day at church, but couldn’t quite find the language for.
Near the end of our conversation, Susan told me that I was a great father. “You really care about your kids. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
I told her thank you. And then I told her the same about her job mothering her two young ones.
We sat there in silence for a while, not speaking, just thinking, and it felt like both of us were doing the math. We were trying to make projections as to what we are doing right, and what we might be doing wrong, and hoping like all parents do that our children will turn out to be someone special.
Honestly, I think that’s what 90% of what parenting is. It’s hope. It’s steering your child in the right direction. It’s teaching them everything you can, and hoping you did everything possible to raise them into good, upstanding people.