A reader tells me that her sister is not a good parent. Though she leaves her kids alone at all hours, speaks rudely to them and feeds them fast-food every day, she resents the fact that they don’t appreciate her. The reader asks if the kids automatically owe her gratitude simply because she’s their mother.
I always cringe when I hear this. I believe that one of the biggest mistakes a parent — good or bad — can make is to say to their kids, ‘Why can’t you be more grateful? Look at all I’ve done for you!’
My experience with family therapy over the years has given me a unique point of view on this subject, so fasten your seatbelts. The sister’s horrific parenting notwithstanding, where is it written that children are supposed to be grateful to their parents, no matter what? Children do not choose to be born. Adults make the decision to become parents. The fact that an adult makes this choice does not place an automatic claim on that child’s entire life.
Of course, any fair-minded child, once he grows up, should appreciate anything his parent(s) did for him that genuinely helped him, such as educating him, instilling basic self-esteem, honesty and other positive values. But no parent is entitled to say, ‘I brought you life, therefore you owe me.’
The conventional wisdom that a child must, under any conditions, blindly admire his father and mother seems dishonest and breeds hypocrisy. What about all the parents who do work hard to raise their kids as best they can? Is it fair to them to say that all parents (including the writer’s sister) have done something that grants them the status of high character?
Imagine a business run this way, where all employees are regarded as exactly the same, even though their individual contributions run from goof-offs to dedicated workers. Wouldn’t the dedicated workers have a right to be insulted?
‘But I sacrifice for my children!’ Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Sacrifice is defined as giving up a greater good for a lesser good. If your mother says that she sacrificed for you, then she’s implying that she had better things to do than to raise you. If that’s true, then she made a self-defeating choice. Similarly, if your father took care of you economically, but ignored (or even harmed) you emotionally, he has no right to escape your unfavorable view by hiding behind the cloak of ‘fatherhood.’ You might credit him for honoring his financial responsibility (since some fathers don’t even go that far), but at the same time, you don’t have to pretend that he did any more than that. The ‘sacrifice’ card doesn’t work here, either. If taking care of you was a sacrifice, then that’s sad for him, but he made the choice to be a parent.
It is not my intention to encourage an attitude of resentment. On the contrary: A lot of parents deserve gratitude for a job well done. Some get this appreciation, and some don’t. There are plenty of parents out there who deserve better from their kids. I’ve written in the past about the false entitlement mentality of some young people. But parents should be held responsible for their actions no less than children.
There’s a world of difference between, ‘I sacrificed for you, so give back!’ and, ‘I did a good job; please give me some credit.’ I don’t think anyone with a shred of self-esteem would respond to the martyr/sacrifice guilt trip.
The love of a parent for a child can be one of the best kinds of love there is. I love my parents not because they happened to have the biological wherewithal to reproduce, but because of the values and ambition they instilled in me. Having children does not grant a free ride to gratitude and self-esteem. That self-esteem, and all the pleasures that go with it, must be earned. Enlightened parents who take the lead on this can accomplish so much for themselves and for their children.
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