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When Good Parents Have Bad Kids

By sandymaple |

One of my oldest and dearest friends is the type of person we all strive to be.  She’s intelligent, kind, loving, patient and understanding  – a beautiful person inside and out.  After college, she married a wonderful man who, like her, desired a large family.  Together, they raised three really great kids.  And one totally rotten one.

For nearly all of his eighteen years, this bad seed son has caused his family much grief and pain.  He was a willful and disobedient toddler, a selfish and demanding grade-schooler and a defiant, angry and uncaring teen.  Today, he’s a drug-addled, thieving boy who seems to delight in making his parents miserable.  They must have really done something wrong when raising that one.  Or did they?  If they are such bad parents, how do you explain the three kids who turned out great?

While I can totally understand the guilt my friend and her husband feel over their son, his problems probably really aren’t all their fault.  Although prevailing wisdom suggests that, barring some sort of mental disorder, all kids are products of their environment and screwed up kids are the result of screwed up parents, experts are beginning to recognize that sometimes a kid is just bad.

In an article at the New York Times, Dr. Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan, says that just as not all kids will grow up to be geniuses, not all kids will grow up to be good.  His colleague,  child psychiatrist Dr. Theodore Shapiro, agrees.

“The central pitch of any child psychiatrist now is that the illness is often in the child and that the family responses may aggravate the scene but not wholly create it.  The era of ‘there are no bad children, only bad parents’ is gone.”

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that my friend and her husband were perfect parents.  But the existence of those three good kids would seem to indicate that there was something in this boy that was different from the start.  And while his being difficult likely did influence the way they responded to him, that cannot be the only explanation for how far from the norm he strayed.

Even if my friends could accept that they are not the reason their son is so bad, it would be little comfort.  We all want our children to grow up to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted adults.  But as this kid proves, sometimes our best will never be enough.

Image: MindsayMohan/Flickr

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0 thoughts on “When Good Parents Have Bad Kids

  1. jennifer says:

    It will be interesting to see the comments on this one.

    It’s not totally related, but I recently read the book Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. It was so striking in the book (about a school shooting, following the shooter and victims from early childhood and then through the trial) to see that the parents of the shooter didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. I mean, they did, but nothing abusive or neglectful. They just didn’t parent that particular kid the way his personality dicated. The book made me second guess everything that seems right to me now in raising my son. You can do things right by what the parenting books say, but it might not be enough, or right for that kid, etc. Anyway, again, not saying that’s what happened in your friend’s case, but that book made me question even more how you can ever know you are doing right by your kids.

  2. Linda says:

    I don’t think it’s fair to label and troubled kid as “bad.” Clearly he was difficult and his parents were ill prepared to deal with that. As parents, when you are a tempermentally bad match for your child, you are the adults and you have to change to fit the needs of said child, not the other way around. I don’t like to see a child labeled negatively from the very start. It just seems mean spirited to me.

  3. JJ says:

    The “orchid hypothesis” can explain this kind of phenomena. (I’m not saying that this is necessarily the case for this family, just that it I’ve heard it used to explain this very situation.)And if I had more energy, I’d explain what the “Orchid Hypothsis” is. ;)

  4. bob says:

    I am familiar with a couple similar situations. In both of those cases, the troubled kid is the eldest. I wonder if it’s possible that those parents adjusted their methods for the later children (I didn’t know either long enough to see for myself). Not to blame anyone — I’m currently raising my first child and I’m keenly aware of my lack of expertise. Parents I know with more kids often say they treat the younger ones differently, either because they are busier or they have learned from the first. I’ve also seen studies that suggest first-borns may be more financially successful, but later-borns are often more happy, which might indicate changed parental emphases over time.

  5. bob says:

    I also suspect that children subsequent to a troubled sibling may sometimes compensate by becoming more flexible, adaptable and thoughtful. The younger siblings may develop accommodating personalities in response to the uniquely troubled-yet-loving environment in which they are raised.

  6. DRo says:

    There have been studies that show that propensity for empathy and for learning from your past mistakes are hard-wired into people’s brains. If your kid is born with a lack of these traits, then no amount of good parenting is going to turn a “bad” kid into a “good one”. However, if your kid does have these traits, then good vs. bad parenting can affect how your kid turns out. So it’s both nature and nurture, but I think nature is the dominant factor. I feel so sorry for the parents of bad kids who are so harshly judged by others. My younger brother turned out to be one of these bad kids, and I assure you, my parents did everything right. It’s genetics.

  7. Bean's Mom says:

    I agree with Bob’s point that “the younger siblings may develop accommodating personalities in response to the uniquely troubled-yet-loving environment in which they are raised.” I also wonder how much of the view of your friends’ child as “bad from the day he was born” is just hindsight. A lot of children are tough at a young age and greedy as adolescents and then grow up to be mature and socially well-adjusted adults. It’s also interestting that when I read the line about the “bad child” in a lovign family that includes threewell-adjusted siblings, I immediately thought that substance dependence is probably inolved in that child’s life. I really believe that drug addiction in itself can really turn any personality upside down. I’ve seen otherwise fine people turn calluous and engage in severely antisocial behaviors in the midst of their drug addiction. So sad!

  8. Linda says:

    I’m a strong believer in tmerperment being inborn. I know that my most difficult child is the oldest. Over time, she’s developed in to a lovely teenager though (probably less difficult than your avergae teen.) Yeah, she’s still as bullheaded as an ox (it runs in the family. :/ ) but her cleverness and persistence and have served her well in academics, athletics, and music/art. That being said, her father and I had to learn very early on that she did not respond positively to traditional forms of punishment as discipline. I often speculate that she was the sort of child who had the potential to be completely ruined by the wrong the wrong type of parenting, in fact, we have friends in whose home the same scenario has played out far differently. The other child has been, imo, abused (hit with belts, etc…) and she is out of control as a teen. This sounds mean, but I think this kid is going to get pregnant just to escape from her family, the only question is when. Oh, her two younger, easier brothers are delightful, just like in our family. This ended up being quite rambling, but my main point is that it’s harder to parent tmperamentally difficult children in effective ways, but it still has to be done. No one benefits by just calling the kid a “bad seed.” In fact, if you spend your entire childhood being told that you’re rotten, why wouldn’t you attempt to escape via drugs?

  9. Sarah says:

    I’ve been a middle and high school teacher for 10 years, and a parent for 7 months. One thing that scares the bejeezus out of me as a new parent are those families I’ve worked with where the parents and most of their kids are lovely people, and yet one kid still is a colossal jerk. *Most* of the time, when a kid is having issues and you meet the parents, you think “Ah. I see now.” But when that’s not the case… it is scary! As one of my colleagues put it, in a totally anti-PC sort of way: “Sometimes you just get a dud.”

  10. Linda says:

    Speaking of colossal jerks, I think anyone who would refer to a kid as a “dud” shouldn’t be working with children, period. Sad to say, being a parent hasn’t seemed to have taught you anything. That “dud” is someone’s precious baby, the same as yours is. Sorry you don’t “get” that. My guess is that you’re neither a very good teacher nor person.

  11. Lisa says:

    Linda, anyone as judgmental as you are problem isn’t a very good judge of what other people ‘get’

  12. Linda says:

    Sandy, I’m just wondering if your old and dear friend knows that you’ve used her child as an example of a child who is inherently bad? It seems like a pretty hurtful thing to do.

  13. sandymaple says:

    Linda – she knows. I discussed it with her before I wrote it.

  14. jillian says:

    So I have this 13 almost 14 year old step daughter and she is always lying, steeling money, and very selfish. She has been this way since she was 5 at least. I am at the last straw. She steels from friends, family, and even the people that love her the most. We have tried everything in the book with her to get her to stop doing all these bad things and to get her attitude undercotrol and nothing is working. It is getting more and more rediculus and she has 4 other syblings that I do not want to start acting like her and one already is starting to so I am getting really scared about that. What should I do?

  15. Linda says:

    Then Sandy, the fact that she was okay with you characterising her child like that, pretty much form toddlerhood on, that speaks volumes, IMO.

  16. bob says:

    I doubt that’s his picture up there.

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