The No Bad Parent Myth

How we all enable abusive mothers and fathers.

Posted Apr 20, 2020

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Gray scale photo of a lonely girl holding a plush toy
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If you suffered abuse as a child, and you now find yourself estranged from your mother, father, or both, many will tell you that you ought to forgive and reconcile; that a failure on your part to reconnect with the people who raised you shows a flaw of character. If an abusive parent passes away, you may be expected to deliver a eulogy at the funeral and pretend the deceased was a  better person than he or she was.

Why do some people react in this way? There is more than one reason, I think, but the main one is this: many simply refuse to believe that there are abusive parents. They choose, instead, to hold on to what I want to call the no bad parent myth. Children are said to be bad, ungrateful, disrespectful, and so on, but parents are always good or at least, not bad. While mothers and fathers may have done some less than exemplary things, at a deeper level, there was always love, or so some of us suppose. Badness and parenthood are seen as incompatible characteristics: One can be bad and one can be a parent, but not both. 

It is this myth that interests me here. I want to trace its origins and discuss its impact.

One way to perpetuate the myth is to adopt a very low standard of good parenting. Thus, suppose you thought that parents are entitled to do anything to their children short of murder. Then all manner of abuse will seem permissible. Neither is this a far-fetched scenario. Historically, more extreme views have been held. For instance, the Stubborn Children Law enacted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1646 licensed capital punishment for sons disobedient to their parents. The law said this:

If a man have a stubborn or rebellious son, of sufficient years and understanding sixteen years of age, which will not obey the voice of his Father, or the voice of his Mother, and that when they have chastened him will not harken unto them: then shall his Father and Mother being his natural parents, lay hold on him, and bring him to the Magistrates assembled in Court and testify unto them, that their son is stubborn and rebellious and will not obey their voice and chastisement, but lives in sundry notorious crimes, such a son shall be put to death. [1]

On this type of account, children's relationship to their parents is much like the one humans on certain religious views have to their Creator: humans have no rights vis-à-vis God, they have only duties. Anything they have is to be regarded as a gift for which gratitude and reverence are owed to the presumed giver. They could pray for more but cannot demand more; nor can they hold God accountable for unanswered prayers.

As with God and the children of God on certain religious views, so with parents and children on a low threshold view of good parenting. Filial piety here is understood by analogy to religious piety (and perhaps, vice versa). This is not to say that people think procreating confers divine status on anyone, but it is to suggest that something of the humanity-God schema is appropriated and adapted to the child-parent context. It may seem, perhaps, that since children owe their very existence to their parents, they are always in debt to their mothers and fathers, and the debt can never be repaid.       

I suspect that ideas along these lines were instrumental to the genesis of the no bad parent myth. But they cannot explain its current popularity. Very few of our contemporaries hold the view that parents are entitled to do whatever they wish to their children and, moreover, to expect gratitude in return. If this is not the explanation, however, what is?

Here is one possibility: The existence of bad parents is seen as an insult to the order of things and gainsaid for that reason. Lack of paternal and especially maternal instincts seems unnatural. And if we don't trust parents to protect their children, how can we have a fully functioning society? How could we all go to bed in peace if we believe some children live with abusive adults and have nowhere else to go?

These are not easy questions to answer, and not surprisingly, we prefer not to answer them. It is more convenient to assume, wishfully, that parents are never bad. Of course, everyone accepts the existence of selfish and narcissistic people in general. But since parents are people, the implication is -- whether intended or not -- that those who procreate, however selfish or egotistical they may have previously been, will get transformed, magically, at least when it comes to the way they treat their children. If only it were so.

There is something else as well. Many hold on to the view that the worst a parent might do is the worst they themselves have suffered at the hands of their parents. Such people simply refuse to accept that others may have had it very much worse. Sometimes, selfish children of good parents consider themselves forgiving for reconciling with a parent who never wronged them to begin with and who, moreover, may have made sacrifices that the entitled child fails to appreciate or even acknowledge. Such people may think that their own reconciliation with caring and loving parents gives them the moral standing to tell abused children, "If I could reconcile, so can you." But it does not follow from the fact your biggest grievance is a minor gripe -- possibly one that's not even reasonable -- that no one suffered child abuse

Maltreatment behind closed doors is especially unlikely to shatter the myth under discussion here. A parent who puts on a good parent mask in front of strangers can rest assured he or she will be believed. Such a parent need only say that the child is difficult or has an attitude. That's enough for well-meaning strangers with cherished beliefs in the order of things to stay firm in the conviction that the world is as they wish it were, at least when it comes to parents.

What gets missed in all of this is that children have very little incentive to invent stories of abuse. Indeed, they may spend years in denial of how badly they were treated, partly because when we are very young, we don't know what "normal" is and may accept various kinds of abuse as normal, and partly because children in general neither wish to believe they were unloved nor want to broadcast that they were to the rest of the world. If they tell a story implicating their parents in cruel behavior, therefore, the story is probably true. 

If the abuse is verbal and psychological, children -- even adult sons and daughters -- are even less likely to have their claims taken seriously. (There is a strong tendency in general to deny the mental suffering of others and to see it as unreal.) But strangers' repudiation of a child's distress can go beyond skepticism of purely mental torment. Physical abuse and child neglect may be denied as well.

Another part of the motivation behind the myth may have to do with the fear -- not necessarily groundless -- that in acknowledging the existence of bad parents, we will encourage filial disrespect and make it easy for bad children to blame their parents for their own failures or to place unreasonable demands on exhausted mothers and fathers, who may well have gone over and above the call of duty in caring for their thankless progeny. 

There are two things to say in response to this. First, the world is a complicated place. There are bad children as well as bad parents, and we cannot -- for fear of encouraging filial disrespect -- deny the very real pain of those who were mistreated. Even if a policy of taking children's reports seriously makes a difference at the margin, giving ammunition to ungrateful sons and daughters, we cannot, for this reason, simply stick to the no bad parent myth. To do that would be like saying that because some accusations of crime are untrue, we should always assume there are no crimes and refuse to investigate.     

Second, and no less importantly, the myth I focused on here is unlikely to hold sway over the ungrateful sons and daughters of good mothers and fathers anyway. Selfish children, unconcerned with the feelings of their parents, won't be much moved by what strangers think. This is precisely why there are bad children despite the persistence of the no bad parent myth. It is good children who care. And those among them who were abused will be hurt, this time not by parents but by the rest of us. 

This brings me to my last point. In a previous post, I discussed parental gaslighting and the ways in which some parents may manipulate children into believing that their pain is either imaginary or else due to flaws in the child's own character. What I would like to add here is that resistance to the idea that bad parents exist creates perfect conditions for various kinds of abuse. The child's experiences are first contradicted by the parents, then contested by strangers. Ill-treated children in a society that clings to the belief no parents are bad are thus gaslighted not only by their own mothers and fathers but by everyone who holds on to the myth. 

Facebook image: Erica Finstad/Shutterstock

References

[1] Sutton, J. (1981). "Stubborn Children: Law and the Socialization of Deviance in the Puritan Colonies." Family Law Quarterly 15-1: 31-64.