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Your Parents Didn’t Always Do the Best They Could

Personal Perspective: And your favorite team doesn’t give 110 percent.

Key points

  • Why are we so eager to let parents off the hook?
  • Why do we hold ourselves to standards we will never achieve?
Girl father portrait

At some point, most of you have probably had the experience of telling someone you trust about a particularly disappointing childhood experience with your parents.

Uncertain of how to be helpful, your friend may have tentatively offered the nearly universal platitude, “Well, they were probably doing the best they knew how to do.” This bromide is often offered as a counter-argument to balance your disappointment with your parents.

It is surprising how often people continue to offer this cliché, considering how infrequently it is helpful. Perhaps you paused briefly in response to your friend's attempt to be helpful and wondered why you not only didn’t feel better but felt more irritated. You may even have started to question yourself: “So if my parents were doing the best they could, what kind of ingrate am I that I’m still irritated at them all these years later?”

Perhaps the reason you were confused and started to blame yourself was, as young people like to say, you were being gaslit. If you were describing an experience to your friend that was very disappointing, hurtful, or even traumatic to you, it is unlikely that your parents were doing their best in that moment. It’s possible they were, and it would be truly tragic if their best resulted in your being harmed. It’s possible but not likely.

What is more likely is that in those moments of your childhood that you remember as painful or even traumatic, your parents were distracted by other matters that seemed more important to them at the time, or that the primitive and largely unconscious process of raising a child, overwhelming their capacity to maintain adult ego functioning.

Perhaps your friend had this in mind when she encouraged you to let your parents off the hook because “they were doing the best they could.” However, I don’t imagine that her calculations included the possibility that “doing your best” might include seeking professional help in situations in which doing the best you know how to do is not by itself enough.

As a culture, why are we eager to idealize parents and minimize the inevitable emotional struggles of raising a child? In promulgating the myth that parents “always do their best,” we are suggesting to parents and kids that they should expect always to do their best, which is of course, not possible, and not feel good about themselves any time they do anything but their best.

Sportscasters say crazy things like, “The team left it all out there on the field,” or "The team really gave 110 percent today,” neither one of which is possible. So how should a kid feel after he didn’t give his best effort on a test? Don’t we want to teach him that he can’t possibly give his best effort on every test, that it’s not possible?

Imagine this scenario: A father misses his daughter’s big end-of-the-year concert that she has been practicing for all year. This concert was just about the most important thing in the year for her, and it was really important to her to have her dad there.

When her dad got home, he went straight to his daughter’s room, sat on her bed, and said,

Sweetheart, I know I let you down, and I imagine you might be really disappointed with me and maybe really mad at me too. I want you to know that it's OK. I really messed up. I did not do my best at all, and it’s not your fault. I’ve been upset about some stuff at work, and I let that get in the way, and that’s entirely my fault. I shouldn’t have done that. None of that is your fault. I messed up, and I will do my best to ensure that does not happen again. I want to hear anything you want to tell me about how you feel about my not showing up or any ideas you have about what I might be able to do to make this right with you.

More from Avrum Weiss, Ph.D.
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