5 Ways to Avoid Your Terrible Parents' Mistakes
Many of you who don't yet have kids are avoiding it out of a sense that you're not ready. After all, what do you when your kid tries to set the cat on fire with a lighter and a can of bug spray? What do you say when your son stumbles across your porn? How do you know you're not handling it in a way that will screw your kid up for life?
Well, most of you will use your own parents as a guide -- you'll raise your kids the way you were raised. But that's not so easy for some of us.
I grew up in two abusive households, one with a neglectful mother who would spend her days sleeping off a hangover. The other was spent with my dad, who was drunk, violent and had some pretty severe mental problems, which he treated with the, "doctors are for pussies, get me a beer" method. So, for example, when Dad decided it was time to teach us about sex, he didn't want to have an actual conversation about it, so he put in an instructional video. And by instructional video, I mean one of his hardcore porn VHS tapes.
In the middle of it, my grandma decided to pay us a visit, walked in without knocking and went absolutely apeshit. My brother and I later had to hear her explanation of what a homosexual was after my dad yelled at her his defense of, "Well, what the fuck do you want me to do? You want them to grow up to be a couple of queers?!" I was six. My brother was five.
But more on that in a moment. My point is everything I knew about parenting, I learned from these two fuckups. So where do people like me turn when we have questions? Well first of all ...
Remember What Dad Did, Then Don't Fucking Do It
If you didn't grow up in a bad situation, you surely know at least one kid who did. His dad was probably also abused as a kid, and so on. What you may be wondering is how, when these people remember how horrible their own childhood was, they can then inflict the same on their own kids?
It's because growing up in that situation changes your concept of what's normal. You're a kid, you don't think of fists and violent threats as "abuse." You think of it as "life." You have nothing to compare it to. Even as you grow up and realize that other people don't live this way, you still have it programmed into you at some primal level.
I always assumed he was getting beaten during the commercials
So when one of my kids does something that trips my temper, there is this quick and insane urge to grab him by the shirt, pin him against the wall, and put the fear of God into him so he never messes up like that again. And I have to stop that shit before it starts.
Remember when you were learning to ride a bike, and you hadn't quite mastered the brakes? And you're speeding down the street when suddenly a tree jumps out in front of you, and before you can remember how to stop, BAM! It hurt like a motherfucker and you considered not getting back on, for fear that it would unleash another attempt at child murder. But sooner or later, you got back on, and your fear of hitting that tree again made you instantly know where those brakes were and how to operate them.
That is, you can use fear. Not to keep the kids in line, but to keep yourself in line. In that split second I remember the absolute fucking terror that shot through my body when I was that age, that utterly horrifying, sickening feeling of raw fear when I knew what was coming... and I stop. I suddenly remember where the brakes are.
If you can do that, then congratulations, fellow parent who had shitty parents. You've graduated from "destined for jail" to "now what? Where do I go to find out how to do it right?"
You wouldn't think you could just Google around for how to raise a child the same way you'd troubleshoot video card driver conflicts, but believe it or not the internet does in fact have a few rare places with a very good ratio of good advice to absolute goddamned morons. Places like parenting.org which have straight up articles about the simple how-to of being a normal dad. There are also countless online support groups that you can pick and choose as you please with a simple Google search.
Those communities helped me in a pretty bizarre way. I found myself in one forum around people who went through pretty much the same nasty shit that I did, so there was one section in particular where the members could just voice their old war stories. It always turned into the same thing. "You think that's bad? My dad set my legs on fire for my eleventh birthday!" "Oh yeah? Well to celebrate the New Year, my dad broke my entire head off and used it as a beer huggie!"
Just carry one of these into those conversations. They'll end up needing it.
It was in one of these threads that I brought up my dad's porno Sex Ed story from earlier. I had always told that as a goofy, funny story about Dad, but hadn't until then realized that in most of civilized society, forcing kids to watch triple penetration porn is considered a form of sexual abuse.
To be clear, it's not that I would have otherwise shown my own kids XXX pornography when it came time to have the talk ("Here comes your passage into manhood, boys. Let's get right to the lesbian scenes"). It's that you still walk around with that skewed idea of what's normal, so having a place where you can hide behind a fake name and compare stories really opens your eyes.
Still, nothing compares to talking to a real-life parenting expert, right? That's why many suggested ...
I tried this, despite the cost and the fact that they make you wear pants. On your legs.
I found myself in a room full of middle class white people who had such urgent questions as, "My daughter is only eight, but she really wants a cellphone. Is it too early for her to have one?" and "My son complains about his allowance, what's a fair amount to give him?" It was at this point that I realized I was not going to hear someone asking, say, what type of porn was best to teach their kids about sex ("Or should I just make one so I know the content is to my standards?") I suppose the parents who would consider doing that wouldn't have their shit together enough to go to a parenting class.
At one point, we were going around the room, talking about things that our own parents did that accidentally taught the wrong lessons. They were all telling these boring stories that seemed like pretty much nothing, so when it came to me, I searched through my childhood and tried to do the same.
That's when the turkey story popped into my head.
I told them about the time my dad and uncle drove around in the country at three in the morning, drinking straight vodka and looking for a specific turkey farm that they knew left the barn doors unlocked at night. When they found it, my uncle manned the getaway car while dad snuck up to the barn with a sawed off baseball bat (always in the trunk, in the event of a bar fight). He opened the door, clubbed the biggest turkey within reach, and ran back to the car with it by its feet, flinging the bleeding, limp carcass into the back seat. He told us how he and my uncle gutted it, skinned it, and cooked it over an open fire out in the middle of nowhere.
When dad told the story, he always laughed his ass off, saying, "Man, when I opened that door, every turkey head in that barn turned right towards me. It's like they knew what was coming. And I tell you what, that was the best damn turkey I ever ate."
That was the last time I went to that class. When it comes to sharing amusing Dad stories, there really is something to be said about internet anonymity.
Related: So You Want to Take an Improv Class?
Observing Normal People in the Wild
When I go to the grocery store, it's pretty much guaranteed I'll come across some woman at the end of her rope, arguing through gritted teeth with a hyperactive four year old on why he needs to stop running and grabbing shit off of the shelves.
This is a surprisingly informative learning opportunity, seeing how different parents handle the same situations. I don't make it obvious, but I hang around in their section for a bit longer than I need just to see how they deal it. Does this parent have an actual technique they're following? Are they just acting out of frustration? Are they thinking about the example they're setting for the annoying little bastard?
Now, you wear that and you think about what you did
Sorry, I shouldn't call their children little bastards. That's my dad talking there.
Speaking of which, when I was eight we all went grocery shopping together (me, Dad and my brother), and as the cashier was ringing up the last of our stuff, my brother (who was seven at the time) reminded dad that he had forgotten to put the bag of potatoes up there with the rest of the groceries so we could pay for them. They were still on the bottom of the cart. My dad thanked him, at the same time shooting him a look that made it clear he was only restraining himself due to the witnesses.
When we got back into the car, he lost it on my brother. Luckily, there was no physical violence in that one, but I'm not sure that made it any better. In a fit of screaming and cursing, he "explained" that if there's something left on the bottom of the cart, you shut your stupid fucking mouth because it's there on purpose. You know, where the cashier can't see it.
Yes, my dad was teaching my seven year old brother how to steal a two-dollar sack of potatoes. He later taught him (before price scanners were a thing) how to switch the price tags on items because cashiers rarely double-checked when ringing it up.
And that's how I got a TV for under a dollar!
This is the same brother who would later spend the vast majority of his life in prison for multiple thefts and burglaries.
Asking Non-Crazy People for Parenting Tips
I eventually made it a point to start small talk with some of my coworkers, who I had previously avoided like the plague because I hate people who make golf jokes and speak in the artificially polite tone I like to call Office Voice. I could blame Dad for that but I think that one is just me.
But when I made myself man up and talk to people, I found that almost every mom and dad in existence will talk about parenting at even the slightest offhanded mention of the word. This annoys a lot of people, but as soon as I had kids I found myself slipping in some questions under the radar, trying to get advice from anyone who didn't show noticeable signs of a recent bar fight.
"Yes, our little Sarah is becoming quite the butcher."
I learned some of my most important lessons this way. "So when my kid gets old enough to draw on the walls with crayon, how do you handle that?" I didn't tell them that my dad would take care of it by throwing a half-full can of beer at us and screaming until our ears rang. I just masked a look of surprise and listened patiently as they unknowingly taught me about a child's "currency." That's to say finding out what they like to play with the most and taking that from them as punishment, carefully explaining to them why you're doing it. And if they repeat the bad action, doing it again until they break the habit.
So, wait... you're telling me that when my kid is throwing a fit because he wants his ball back, the best way to handle it isn't to down a bottle of vodka and fall asleep on the couch because he'll get over it? Holy shit. That was when I realized tha concepts like "grounding" a kid and actually discussing with them what they did wrong wasn't, as I had believed, just something they did on sitcoms because the script dictated it.
The infamous episode where Kimmy gets caught blowing a donkey.
As I've said, I knew to put on the brakes and not unleash a beatstorm on my kids just because they made a mess. But that fucked up sense of what's normal means you don't know how far to go in the other direction. I found myself in more than one full-fledged argument with a six year-old, debating him as if he were 20. The line of thinking was that since my parents treated me like shit, I should do the opposite and treat my own kids as equal adults.
But they're not. They're kids. Equal humans, absolutely. Equal adults? They have several more years of growing before they graduate into that. That's what you're there for. That's where talking to other parents helps -- knowing what's bad doesn't automatically tell you what's good.
And as for me, I can forgive my dad, but can never forget. And maybe my revenge is knowing that he's somewhere, watching me out-parenting him so hard that it makes his parenting skills look like a big pile of shit.
Be a good parent and buy your kid our book.