Must we be "nice" parents?

Marion Ross
Remember Marion Ross? She played the mom in Happy Days and she was so nice. Photo credit: StyleSubstanceSoul

My 12-year-old son and I were on a walk, and I was regaling him with tales of my childhood. To be specific: he was complaining about being tired from our “hike” (a thirty-minute stroll through a forest-y nature area), and I was chastising him by telling stories that began with “When I was a kid…”

When I was a kid, my dad didn’t put up with any crap. He never let me get away with whining about the weather or being “tired” while on a walk. He usually pointed out the fact that he was almost 40 years older than me and he was handling the hardship just fine.

Luke’s response: “Wow, he wasn’t very nice to you growing up, was he?”

Huh. That’s your takeaway, kid?

As a child, it never occurred to me that my parents’ strict, sometimes stern direction wasn’t “nice.” I’ll grant that this is the recollection of an adult with a spotty memory and a default set of rose-colored glasses. I was also an easy-going kid. But still — my parents’ roles as disciplinarians seemed to make sense even then. I accepted, on a basic level, that it was their jobs as parents to be tough, and that sometimes involved yelling and/or not comforting me. Such treatment never affected my feeling supported or accepted by them.

Somewhere along the line, it became wrong for parents to raise their voices. Or to express anger or frustration. Or to admit annoyance. Or even to be tough in way that isn’t cheerful and positive.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like I’m saying YELLING IS GOOD or that I enjoyed being yelled at (or held accountable in other ways) as a kid. My point is that my parents’ “niceness” didn’t affect my love for them, or my feeling of being loved.

I told Luke this.

I wouldn’t characterize my dad’s toughness as his not being nice. I knew he loved me and was always looking out for me. I also accepted that he was a man of few words. What words he used got straight to the point.

Luke considered this. “He’s not like that now, is he? He’s always so nice to me.”

I smiled, thinking about the difference between parenting and grandparenting. Every grandparent I’ve ever met says that grandparenting is a hundred times more fun than parenting. I also thought about how we continually strive to be “good parents,” but/and our essential nature is still on full display. Not only do our kids see us for who we are — warts and all — they generally accept us.

One of my ongoing challenges and something I try to impart to my kids is the balance between accepting yourself and holding yourself to a higher standard. That is: I’m pretty lovable, and I can do better. When the urge toward improvement comes from a place of generosity and responsibility (wanting to to put more goodness into the world) rather than a place of scolding (I suck and need to whip myself into shape), good things happen.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. We continued our walk without my summing up the conversation with a perfectly packaged bit of parental wisdom. We batted low-hanging branches, sidestepped poison oak, and made morbid jokes about getting lost in the woods and mauled by werewolves. Hopefully something useful got stuck in his head. I think something useful got stuck in mine.

Do you think “good” parents have to be “nice” parents?

“Luke” is my son’s Internet name so when folks Google him they won’t be inundated with embarrassing stories written by his mother.

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More on The Accidental Expert:
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♦ Michael Phelps’s mom, Debbie Phelps: Minimalist Parent

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Article Posted 4 years Ago
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