There are all sorts of parents in the world: the Aloof Parent, the Angry Parent, the Apathetic Parent, the Negligent Parent, the Meek Parent, the Meddling Parent, the Overwhelmed Parent. Every parent will at one point be any combination of those characteristics. But the worst type of parent to be is the Asshole Parent.
The best way to avoid being an Asshole Parent is to understand that at some point you will be an Asshole Parent. I don’t always know how to be a good parent, but I do know how to avoid being an Asshole Parent (and that’s because I’ve been one and probably will be one again at some point in the future).
1. Don’t Instinctively Believe Your Child Is Right
From the moment your child can crawl, they will begin to explore the magical world of lies. Will lying get them out of having to eat lima beans? Will lying about how sick they feel, by putting the thermometer under a lamp to make their temperature 106 degrees, excuse them from going to school? Will lying absolve them from getting in trouble for the stuffed animal that clogged the toilet and flooded the bathroom?
As they get older, the lies become more elaborate, more dramatic, and have greater consequences. Almost all lies are rooted in fear—fear of a consequence for an action. One of the more difficult tasks you’ll have as a parent is to discern when your child is lying and when they’re telling the truth.
You don’t want to demoralize your child by distrusting everything they say (and give them no choice but to lie because you won’t believe them whether they do or not), or be so ignorant and foolish as to believe they’d never lie to you. So in an effort to be a responsible and reasonable parent, you do all you can to gather all the facts and perspectives on any situation to come to a verdict. You’ll be wrong—often. And that’s OK. As long as you’re willing to accept that getting it wrong is a part of parenting.
Your child isn’t a defect, a dceviant, or a psychopath because they lie. More importantly, neither are you as their parent. Other parents judge you because of your child. It’s going to happen—probably all of the time. Worrying about what other parents think of you is what turns you into an Asshole Parent (a theme you will find throughout this piece).
2. Don’t Equate Your Child’s Achievements With Parental Success
There’s a reason people say parenthood is a thankless job; it’s because it is. That doesn’t mean parenting is pointless or worthless, just that parenting isn’t about you at all. The problem is that doing something that offers no payment, no promotions, no awards, no guidelines, no leaderboard, and no high score can become amazingly disheartening and discouraging. And so you search for anything that can affirm that you aren’t failing as a parent. And that “anything” will almost always come through the achievements of your child.
The natural tendency of any parent is to believe that since your child is a mixture of you and your significant other (let alone that their very existence is because of you) that in some way anything they do is because of you. As such, it seems it’s OK, even right, that you “share” credit for their achievements.
Your child’s accomplishments and achievements should be celebrated. In many ways, your influence, instruction, patience, persistence and help were instrumental in those achievements. But they are not your achievements. If you take credit for the positives, then you should also take credit for the negatives. But there are so few things that make you feel good about your parenting that accepting blame for the negatives is unlikely.
So either you ignore anything negative to bolster some made-up parental contest, or you accept that your child’s achievements are both because of and in spite of you. Be an adult and stop using your child as a trophy to bolster your self-esteem; otherwise, you’ll turn into an Asshole Parent.
3. Don’t Meddle in Your Child’s Issues
Any amount of time your child spends with their peers will result in some drama. There will be hurt feelings. There will be name calling. There will be bullying. There will be gossip. There will be breakups. Your role as a parent is to be available to your child, no matter their involvement in any issue—whether they’re the ones being hurt or doing the hurting. Unless circumstances warrant more explicit action from you, it’s best to remain a supportive guide than a meddling aggravator. Support your child without inserting yourself in their issues. If you want your child to survive when they leave your house, you cannot resolve their issues for them.
Think of the issues as air in a balloon. The more people who get involved, the more the balloon inflates. Sometimes the balloon will explode. Sometimes it will deflate. Your role as a parent isn’t to add more air to the balloon but to keep it from exploding. Once you become earnestly involved—for example, by texting the other parent about how terrible their child is and threatening to sue that child for “defamation of character” and then calling the cops claiming that child is “harassing” your child by sending too many texts—you cross the line from a concerned parent into an Asshole Parent.
4. Don’t Deem the Actions of Your Child as a Reflection on Your Reputation
Your child is very much from you, a part of you, and therefore loved by you, but it’s important to remember that your child is an independent being. Once they leave your constant supervision, they begin to experience things beyond your control, which isn’t to say you should never let them leave your constant supervision (please, for the love of God and the sake of your child, don’t believe that controlling and monitoring every moment of their life is wise or noble). They will have their own experiences, interactions, thoughts and beliefs, which shape their personalities. You will feel responsible for the actions of your child. Yet when they cheat on a test, teach their 6-year-old friend to say shit “accidentally,” set two backyards on fire, or get caught smoking weed in the school parking lot, your child’s actions are their own.
While you are legally responsible for them until they are 18, don’t mistake that responsibility for your reputation. Will your child’s actions influence others’ perceptions of you and your parenting skills? Yes, absolutely. But people are reactive and judgmental. You aren’t a parent to your reputation. You aren’t a parent for others’ perceptions. You are a parent to your child and are attempting to mold them into an independent, functional, loving, and forgiving human being with the ability to make wise decisions, the confidence to stand for their convictions, and the humility to admit their mistakes. Parenthood is not about your status, your skills, or your reputation.
You can’t cultivate a flawless reputation without blemishing another. It’s far better to build a reputation through honest flaws than manufactured purity. Once you parent to preserve and protect your reputation, you turn into an Asshole Parent.
5. Don’t Be Tempted to Seek Your Child’s Love or Approval
Since the rewards of parenting are so conceptual and fleeting, a logical place to seek affirmation for your parenting skills is through your child’s love and approval. Attempting to make someone love you often results in them resenting and disliking you. You can’t make anyone love you, not even your own child. There will be times when your child hates you. There will be times when you hate your child. Conflict is part of living in close proximity with other human beings for long periods of time.
What if you used Google Maps to get directions from your house to the Parenthood Hall of Fame in Pennsylvania, but rather than giving you a decisive route Google just asked how you wanted to get there, offered you ice cream, and repeatedly says, “Do you love me?!” Once you seek your child’s love and approval, you cease being their parent. You’ll compromise your decisions, devalue your authority, and forfeit your influence. You turn into an Asshole Parent.
6. Don’t Believe That Parenthood Is Futile
Whether you are a parent or want to be a parent, the role can feel unrelenting, daunting, overwhelming, and often futile. It all depends on your expectations. Parenthood will never bolster your self-esteem, raise your dignity, or validate your character, especially when you use your child as the conduit to fulfillment.
Parenthood is unlike any other duty in life. It’s value can’t be measured in the same way as a career, or academic studies, or one’s skills at ping pong. Fused with the difficultly of raising a child, all the failures and foibles, all the heartache and confusion, is the immutable reward of living. Parenthood is the act of fully immersing yourself in the history of being, contributing to history, accepting limitations, balancing disappointments, grieving loss, imbibing joy, propelling the story of life forward.