Neither Bad People Nor Bad Parents

Lisa writes: Would you lie for your kid?  Cheat? Steal? My guess is that for most of us there is a point where we would do each of these things.  There are conditions, like famine and war, where we would leave our morals behind and act on our protective instincts to assure our children’s survival. But in real life, the one where we get up and go to work and the kids go to school, most parents, I believe, hold onto their moral compasses acting neither as bad people nor bad parents.

Lisa Heffernan and Jennifer Breheny Wallace

Saturday morning I was on Fox and Friends with guest Jennifer Breheny Wallace, discussing the recent New York Magazine article, “Is Ethical Parenting Possible?”  In Lisa Miller’s article she asserts that,  “Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral. Worse, the moral weakness of parents is always on display, for children bear witness to their incessant ethical hairsplitting.”

Here I have to disagree.  Parenting is not a war, in fact it is the very opposite.  In parenting there is no enemy.  We may feel pressure, but we are not being attacked. There are no short burst of firepower, but rather a sustained multi decade long process of nurturing a helpless infant into a self-sufficient adult.  There are high points and low points but there is certainly no moment when we can claim certain victory and walk away.

Miller goes on to posit that our love for our kids and our burning desire for their success allows us to throw out our ethical bearings and focus solely on our child’s push forward. This desire can turn us into bad people and then bad parents. To quote Miller, “Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all.”

As a parent, I certainly do not feel towards others as I do towards my own kids, but that does not mean that I do not believe that society’s rules apply to my kids.  And further, and perhaps more important, that it is my job to teach them that the rules do apply to them.  I may feel that they are the best three people on Earth, but it is my job to show them the difference between the way that I feel about them and the fact that, in the eyes of the world, they are just like anybody else.  I disagree that we cannot behave, as Miller suggests, like society’s rules apply to our kids.  We are not bad people or bad parents it is just that sometimes, as the fallible people that we are, we choose to act otherwise.

The example Miller gives of parents putting their own children before others are familiar ones, redshirting in kindergarten, failing to clear the lice out of a child’s hair or doing their homework for them.  While some bad parenting may have a sinister motive, most parenting fails come from the fact that our resources of time, money and attention are limited and, in our frustration, we do not always behave as we know we should.

I think as parents, we can tell the difference between what we should do and what we actually do and, more often than not, we do act as though society’s rule apply to all.  One examples Miller cites are parents who coach in order to put their kids in a great playing spot.  Most parents coach because they love kids and sports.  They coach because recreational sports only exist through a legion of volunteer parents who should be thanked for giving their time every weekend.  I have seen parents advantage their kids on sports teams, but I far more often, I have seen parents who played fair or even bent over backwards to slightly disadvantage their kid so that there could be no doubts of favoritism.  Those who bend the rules to benefit their kids, I would suggest are a tiny minority and I suspect if we looked deeper into their lives we might find that bending rules is not just something they do for their kids.

Today is never about today in parenting.  Everyday we weigh the future against the present.  For most of the time, good parenting, which entails a focus on the future wins out.  It is always easier to do our kids homework.  Every night, right up until they hit courses like calculus and biology, our evenings would go more smoothly if we just took out their backpacks did their work, put their names at the top and slide it right back into their folders.  We don’t do that because we are focused on the long-term, the adult we are trying to raise. We need to go easy on ourselves when we get it wrong, and the present overwhelms the future.  The lessons we teach are learned over months, years and decades, not on any one night.

My kids sometimes ask me to read papers they have written for school and to check for errors.  A simple matter, but one rife with unsteady grounds.  When I find the errors, misspellings, words missing and the like, I always feel torn.  Do I point out their errors, or simply say that there are errors and they must find them?  If I tell them what the errors are, certainly they have an advantage and, if I tell them the right answer, a huge advantage.  What about when I realize that with some editing, the paper can be vastly improved?  Am I a bad person or a bad parent if I tell them?  On college admissions sites all over the country applicants are advised to share their admissions essays with parents and teachers to look for feedback and editing.  This advice is given so that the high schooler can present their best work, but when does this type of adult help bleed over into unethical behavior? It can seem so clear until real life gets in the way.

We exist to allow our children to survive.  Ensuring that they thrive is coded into every strand of our DNA.  Yet our moral compasses, the beliefs that civilize us and that we spend our lives trying to pass on, are learned over the course of our own childhoods and I do not believe that in becoming a parent we discard the people we have become.



  1. says

    I didn’t get to see you on Fox and Friends, but I suspect I would have been throwing things at Ms. Wallace.

    I once wrote a blog post that referenced an article in the Atlantic in which the author said: “Our children are not our masterpieces.” The only way we can raise successful, moral adults is to love them as much as we can and yet let them face challenges and deal with consequences without our constant fixing and tweaking.

    Excellent post!

  2. Carpool Goddess says

    Great piece! I hope you will post the segment.

  3. says

    Excellent piece, as usual.

    I think a lot of it comes down to what your definition of success is, both in life and as it applies to parenting. If I raise my children to be compassionate, respectful, ethical people, then I will have done my job well. I can’t do that without doing my best to provide a good example.

    When it comes to examples like the one you gave about helping find errors in a paper, I would look at the larger purpose. If it’s an exam of some sort where my child is being judged on what he or she did alone, then no I wouldn’t help, but if it’s a regular assignment and the point is to learn something, I have no problem with providing whatever guidance my child needs to improve. I have no interest in how my children are performing compared to others, only if they are fulfilling their potential. I think that’s different from helping them succeed as if life is a competition.

  4. says

    Excellent. I have the same conflict when the kids come to me with homework questions. As a parent, what is my real goal? What is the path of least resistance? They always seem to be in competition with one another.

  5. says

    I agree with you completely- when we’re doing our best for our kids there are moments where we’re biased and don’t see that we’re giving them unfair advantages, but mostly most of the time, parents are doing their best and teaching our kids to be good people.

    Thanks for speaking up for us!

  6. says

    Letting my kids fail is one of the hardest things about parenting. Most worthwhile things are difficult.

  7. says

    I couldn’t agree with you more. It is imperative that we model good, ethical behavior for our children. As you said, our job is to, day by day, teach them the tools they need to be independent and successful in their own life. Sending the message that rules are for everyone but ourselves (or our children) is a terrible way to promote responsible citizenry.

  8. says

    Awesome, piece, Lisa. And I love that you take on the assertion that it is impossible for parents to be moral. If we aren’t moral, what kind of a society are we creating? More than anything, we need to be good examples and not make things easy for our kids. Because as parents know, life won’t always be easy and they will need to pave their own path and solve their own problems. As they think of us, and the examples we set, I hope their paths will be moral. It is insane the lengths that parents go to for their children these days, but thank you for clearly stating that it does not have to be this way. We do not have to succumb to that kind of peer pressure—once again, not a good example for our kids.

  9. says

    Excellent piece. I struggle with the fact that my history isn’t their reality, meaning the experiences that motivated me to become the person and parent I am today isn’t the same as theirs. In some ways they have it easier simply because their parents are in a better position than mine were so I try to find other ways for them to have experiences that enhance their moral compass and hold myself accountable for it. Thank you for sharing. Great reminder!

  10. says

    Great job, Lisa. Parenting involves a careful balance between teaching and supporting our children, and letting them learn things on their own, especially as they get older. Knowing when to step in and when to hold back is a challenge, but I agree that most parents care about doing the right thing.

  11. says

    I love your line, “Today is never about today in parenting.” That pretty much sums it up — there is so much more at stake in every decision than simply the specific situation. Great piece, Lisa.

  12. says

    I am so glad to read your article and the responses and realize that I am not alone in many of my beliefs.
    I work in high schools and regularly have the opportunity to remind parents that we are “raising people, not transcripts”; that kids need to make lots of little mistakes while they are little so that they learn and avoid making lots of big mistakes when they are big!
    With regard to “helping” with homework – completing assignments for a kid is a complete NO; however, I spend plenty of time proof reading and making suggested edits for teens and college students. When a student seeks out a editor, they are doing exactly what good writers do – and good editors edit – they don’t take over the piece. The best editing that I have done were line by line read-throughs with the student sitting next to me and making changes for clarity, etc.

  13. says

    And I just noticed an edit that I should have caught before I hit “Post Comment!” HAHA!

  14. Emily says

    Yup – couldn’t agree more and congrats about being on the show. You raised some very important points, ones that we all struggle with. The helping with homework issue is a big one, but I hope that my mostly hands off attitude will serve them well down the road.

  15. says

    Excellent article! As a school nurse your statement of ” most parenting fails come from the fact that our resources of time, money and attention are limited and, in our frustration, we do not always behave as we know we should” rings so true! Who are we to judge other parents? We are not them. We can only strive to do our best for our families and our children.

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  1. Neither Bad People Nor Bad Parents | Bloppy Blo... says:

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