Parenting, Children and ‘Bad Seeds’

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Can good parenting really yield children who are ‘bad seeds’? Are parents really at fault? Or children? Or is the reality just quite a bit more complex than that?

These thoughts on parents and children were provoked by an article published online in the New York Times called ‘Accepting that Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds‘. The author, Richard A. Friedman M.D., says, “the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children”. And a little farther he expands on this:

We marvel at the resilient child who survives the most toxic parents and home environment and goes on to a life of success. Yet the converse — the notion that some children might be the bad seeds of more or less decent parents — is hard to take.

Well yes, I do find this hard to take, for a number of reasons. Because the idea of a genetic inheritance of evil propensities isn’t thought much of even in conservative Christian circles these days. Because that qualification ‘more or less’ seems to be such an easy out: how much less decent might parents be before it makes a difference? Because I’m struck by how much people learn. Because I think what people do with their temperaments and natural inclinations is what makes them good or bad. And, finally, because I think the situation is a great deal more complex than good or bad seeds. So this post offers my thoughts on the complex business of parents and children.

Parents Can Kid Themselves

I wonder if you have ever heard a parent say, “I don’t know what we did wrong, we gave them a decent home, they never wanted for anything, I don’t know what else we could have done”? I don’t want to minimise the distress that the parents who say these kinds of things are feeling. However, this is different to saying that they are correct. Sometimes I’ve felt that, even if they don’t see what else they could have done, I sure can.

Neither parents nor any other people I’ve met are perfectly conscious of their behaviour. Parents may well treat their children differently and be entirely unaware that they are doing so.

Children May Be Quite Different to Each Other

From my memories and the reports of those who were around me at the time, I was a quiet and shy child. From my memories and the reports of those around at the time, my sister was gregarious.

Two children can react differently to the same treatment. One child may enjoy the washing up and another loathe it. So, while having the children take turns doing the washing up may be fair, it may also be experienced quite differently by the different children. I think it is quite easy to understand how treating two children the same can lead to quite different outcomes.

Children Can Be Surprisingly Independent

My niece when young was quite keen on fairies. At school her Scripture teacher told her that fairies don’t exist. When she came home and told her mother what the Scripture teacher had said, her mother started to go into comfort mode — at which point my niece said, “Oh, I didn’t believe her.”
I have found it common for children to be distinctly different to their parents in some of their preferences, opinions, interests and behaviours, from quite a young age. Several children I have met have said words to the effect of, “Oh yes, mum/dad has a thing about that” or, “Well, that’s just mum/dad”. My mother has quite strong feelings about not drinking alcohol. Her father, who died before she was born, reportedly drank heavily, and her brothers who served during the Second World War all came back with varying levels of addiction to alcohol. She has good reason for feelings against alcohol. But none of us kids took this on — even though we grew up in a church environment where this attitude was also widely (though far from universally) shared.

“We reproduce who we are not what we say.”

I think what we learn from our parents is often our attitude to life. I think what our parents model is of far more consequence for us than what they say. I can still see my father, when confronted by a problem, stopping to think. I certainly learned this from him — and it has generally served well in my life. From my mother I learned that Christianity is about people — not because she ever stated this in theological terms (which she finds entirely alien) but from thousands of discussions of relationships and conflicts and how these should be responded to. Over and over she modelled that Christianity was about treating people well.

The independent parent having conflict with the independent child is so common as to be a cliché.

Families Don’t Exist In a Bubble

As my partner pointed out to me about the article in the New York Times, families don’t exist in a bubble. There are huge influences, other than parents, on children. There are peers, groups that form around interests and hobbies (sport, drama, art and so on), and, perhaps most significantly of all, schooling. During High School I had the good fortune to have the same English teacher four years out of six. He had a big influence on me (I am still impatient with waffle and pretension in writing).

What Does ‘Toxic’ Even Mean?

I haven’t met the author of the New York Times article, and he doesn’t offer a definition, so I don’t know what he means by ‘toxic’. In the case of parents, I would call their behaviour ‘toxic’ if they were physically and/or sexually abusive to their children, or if they set out to demean them or be cruel to them. In the case of children, I would call their behaviour toxic is they were bullying or being cruel or demeaning to others.
However, I think it is more common for ‘good’ in relation to parents and children to mean socially conforming. Would it be a good child who was so in touch with their own needs and rhythms that they couldn’t stand school? Is a good parent one who sets out to transform what they see as the inequities of their society? These probably aren’t the first ideas that spring to mind when we speak of ‘good parents’ and ‘good children’.

So, my response to the article: parenting is a complex business, parents aren’t perfect and generally get little help with the complex and demanding task(s) of parenting, and children aren’t nearly as simple as being ‘seeds’.

Let me know in the comments what your observations are of parenting and the impact it has on children. Do you have an idea of what ‘good parenting’ is? If so I’d like to hear what it is. I expect and hope for a huge diversity of experience and answers.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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