Let’s talk about parenting. Actually, let’s talk about liberal parenting. If you are any kind of conservative parent, particularly one who considers religion as an important life theme, I advise you right now not to read this, because you won’t likely agree with anything I say, and you will probably find it offensive and feel insulted, and you will get your panties in a twist and write a strongly worded Letter to the Editor about how I’m some kind of decadent weirdo hippie freak. Well, I am. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I’m not an expert on parenting, but then, neither are you. How do I know this? Because no one is. There is no well-defined objective measure of a good parent. There is no user manual, no instructions, no step-by-step guide. I am sure there are YouTube videos on it, but most instructional YouTube videos are crap. In any case, they are for sure founded on the theory that parents somehow have the ability to control how their children turn out. I don’t think we do. In my opinion, parenting is fundamentally a crap shoot. You gotta do it, but you’re flying blind most of the time.
In fact, if you think you know a lot about parenting, I’ll bet you are a parent from hell, and your children secretly hate you. Or even openly. Whatever. Get away from me.
Of course, you would think that by loving your children, providing them with a comfortable lifestyle, guiding them through emotional ups and downs, protecting them from harm, instilling proper moral values in them, living your own life as a good example, giving them the finest education, encouraging them to express themselves, exposing them to art, culture, and blah blah blah, all of this would constitute good parenting. Sure, it does. But my point is, good parenting may or may not result in children who are good human beings. In fact, no one has any idea of what the result will be.
I guess, in the absence of any predictable result, one tries to achieve and maintain good parenting because:
- You have to do some kind of parenting at some point, might as well try to do something right;
- Assuming you have values, (and you are aware of them) you want to perpetuate and propagate these values, so that the world will be a better place, or whatever;
- Being a bad parent is not a meaningful life objective for you;
- You probably need to cover your ass in case you get judged later on in life— which you will be— not least, by your children, themselves.
I remember one time, we were walking in Paris with our two older sons (the youngest wasn’t born yet), the elder one, who was at that time eight years old, was dragging his feet and making dabog, basically because he was tired of walking so much.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him.
“I’m having a bad childhood!” he shot back.
“Really?” said his mother. “We take you to Paris for a vacation, and you call that a bad childhood?”
He answered, “You people are bad parents! You keep taking us to all these bars and places full of drunk people who are all smoking!”
My wife and I nearly died of laughter. “Um, dude,” I explained. “This is Paris. It’s full of French people. They make great wine, so of course, they’re drunk all the time. You would be, too. And yeah, they smoke, that’s why they invented existentialism. That’s just the way things are, here.”
This did not seem to satisfy him. “Well, I’m tired, and they’re weird. Can’t we go to McDonald’s?”
“We are absolutely not going to McDonald’s,” I said. “Here we are in one of the great culinary capitals of the world, and you want to eat American junk?”
“Can I at least have French fries?”
“Sure, but here, they’re not called French fries, and by the way, they’re Belgian. Like Tintin. Let’s go look for a place to eat. With wine.”
There you have it: you take your children on a stroll down the Champs Elysées, because you think that’s being a good parent, but what they really want is Mickey D. It’s a crap shoot.
My own parents would disagree violently about parenting being a crap shoot. They were firm believers that good parenting would inevitably produce good children, by force, if necessary.
For example, my mother is a devout Catholic, and one of her major life objectives was to raise her children to also be devout Catholics. I won’t speak for my brothers and sisters, but in my case, she totally failed, despite all her valiant efforts, which included, among others regularly attending a minimum of 52 masses a year, even when traveling, sending me to Sunday School for short period, and in one spectacular episode, in my early teens, to some bizarre catechism sessions at a very conservative, rightist lay group.
I told my parents at the time that I needed to stop going to that thing, because those people were really weird, in a scary, dark, guilt-driven way. I think that freaked them out even more than it did me— which means, I achieved the desired outcome: no more catechism.
Since I was a child, and despite my mother’s insistent attempts, I have found religion, both specifically and in general, completely void of interest and uncompelling. I find so much more joy in differential calculus or quantum physics than in bible study. The moment I started living on my own, I stopped attending mass— despite living practically across the street from Malate Church for 20 years.
There was an exception of course: there always is. I went to a secular boarding school in the United States in my teens, and I would frequently attend a weekly spiritual ceremony there called “Meditation”. This was held in the school church in the early evening. In the dim, echoing vastness of this century-old stone church, we would form a circle around the school minister. He, or a student, would read out a short text. It could be a verse from the Bible, or a poem, or a passage from the Quran, or a short essay on individuation by Carl Jung, or the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, or song lyrics from Bob Dylan. We would then sit in absolute silence for maybe 15 minutes, thinking about this. Then a student would play a piece on the flute, or classical guitar, or cello or whatever. Then we would all stand up (no applause was the agreement), greet each other, and leave.
This was a wonderful spiritual experience, particularly because I attended most of them stoned to a molecular level from half a dozen bong hits I shared with my classmates in the dorm before going. In fact, if I ever start a church or cult of my own, we won’t have Mass, or any kind of preaching: just Meditation, once a day. I’ll even grow the marijuana myself.
I don’t define myself as an atheist today, because that would be too much effort. I’m just as interested in atheism as I am in religion: i.e. not at all. I don’t even think religion is bullshit. I see how it makes sense to certain people, and good for them. On my part, I comply substantially. I attend Mass when compelled to socially, at funerals, weddings and the like. I pay zero attention except to stand when everyone else stands, kneel when everyone else kneels, and mouth the verses of prayers when required. Of course, we have had all our children baptized, why not.
You can force children to do things, but you ultimately can’t force them to be someone they aren’t
My mother, of course, was simply being a good parent, and doing her best to inculcate in me the values that she believed in. She did not succeed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a bad person. I’m just not the particular good person she wanted me to be, in the way that she defined good, i.e. God-fearing.
And yet. I know this couple— younger than my parents, but still older than I— who are real hippie freaks, Age of Aquarius and the whole thing, drugs, drink, free love etc. during the Seventies. Yet, their son, my age, never touched a drop of alcohol in his life, and has become a “Renewed Christian” pastor. It works both ways. “Renewed Christian”, by the way, as he explained to me, is not “born-again”, because it’s Catholic. Because Born-agains, apparently, are not Catholic. I learn something new every day, even if it bores me to death.
My stand about this is that you can be a very good person without the influence of religion— and you can be very religious and also be a really awful person. Especially if you are morally self-righteous. I’m sure we all know a few of those. But my point in all of this is simply, you can force children to do things, but you ultimately can’t force them to be someone they aren’t, without driving them (and yourself) crazy in the process.
Again, there are people who do all the right things, or at least some of them, yet whose children turn out to be absolutely dreadful human beings. I mean, think of the parents of Duterte, Trump, Hitler, Lenin. Were they awful parents? Cursory research does not indicate that they were, at least not to the extent that they have been blamed for the way their children turned out.
I know some people, and I am sure you do too, who seem wonderful, kind and wise, and yet whose children are either vicious, self-entitled brats with terrible, selfish personalities, or abject losers with no direction and no potential benefit to humanity, or some other variant of dysfunctional.
By the same token, I know some truly awful people, including plundering politicians (really), who appear to have been great parents, and whose children, against all odds, are wonderful human beings. There’s also no shortage of comically macho fathers with gay sons (e.g. Binibini Gandanghari, remember her?), or socialite beauty queen moms with butch daughters. How do these outcomes happen? It can’t be totally random. Is it possible that the more you force your children in a particular direction, the more they will struggle to go in the opposite direction?
There is, of course, an objective measure of being a bad parent. Neglecting or ignoring your child, maltreating them, influencing them negatively, and exposing them to questionable moral choices is clearly not being a good parent. We all have the potential to damage our children, and we inevitably will, either in small ways or great ones. I would even argue that children who never suffered even minor damage from their parents are at a disadvantage, because they may be less resilient and able to cope, for instance with toxic people, later on in life. Nevertheless, a “bad” childhood does not automatically result in a bad adult.
One of the coolest and altogether worthwhile human beings I know, is an artist, a serene, gentle soul, with a wicked sense of humor and tremendous humility and wisdom. He has two handsome sons of his own. He happens to be an orphan who never knew his parents, ran away from foster parents, and spent a part of his childhood as a homeless street kid in the slums of Manila. You would think this experience would have turned him into either a sniveling basket case, or a vicious, sociopathic thug, but it didn’t. In fact, I knew him for some years before I discovered that he had been a street kid, and this discovery was by accident. He was working with street kids, teaching, and I remarked that he seemed to be really good at it. That was the only time I learned it was because he had been a street kid himself.
I’m not saying that parenting doesn’t really affect your children. I guess parenting does affect your children, but first, not necessarily in the ways that you expect, and secondly, not at the times when you expect.
The late Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who did pioneer research into human sexuality, hypothesized that sexual orientation among humans was a spectrum, for example, from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most heterosexual, and 10 being the most homosexual. Moreover, Kinsey believed that human sexual orientation could change situationally, and that people who were normally a “1” could, in certain circumstances, find themselves attracted to a person of the same gender, thus registering as a “5”, or even as a “10”. With the advent of the transgender definition, this has since become quite complicated, but set that aside, and just consider the framework, i.e. the spectrum.
In this hypothetical scale, a 1 means that nothing you do or say in a particular situation will fundamentally alter your child’s future and personality, and they won’t even remember it; while a 10 means that everything you say and do will profoundly influence your child forever and ever. Now, throw in the variable that this will change situationally, and that it’s a blind test: you will never know when “the camera is on.”
Imagine that, more or less at random, there will be critical moments when, likely unbeknownst to you, every action, and every word you say will matter through your child’s entire life. This could be a moment as simple and ordinary as fixing a clogged toilet, or ordering coffee at Starbucks. Yet, there will be other moments, for instance when you decide to seriously lecture your child about what you think is a key life lesson, that they will never remember at all in the future. It’s a crap shoot, I tell you.
For me the basic administrative mechanics of parenting consist largely of carrot and stick, reward and punishment
Think of your child as a customer, or a client. Ultimately, all your efforts, from the child’s perspective, will really only determine the quality of his or her childhood; nothing else. By such things will you be judged, later on, hahaha!
In the meantime, I go ahead with my (largely religion-free) parenting. I enjoy doing it, partly because it’s such a weird mystery. I have three sons, who as I write, are 15, 11 and six years old. Each of them has a highly defined personality, and I can tell you, they are who they are, not who we tried to make them into, because we didn’t.
For me the basic administrative mechanics of parenting consist largely of carrot and stick, reward and punishment. In this way, it has many parallels with animal husbandry, and particularly, dog training, except that dogs are really obedient and appreciative.
I am not a particularly strict parent, but I do exercise disciplinary measures when I think they are needed. I have rarely needed to deploy my absolute Nuclear Weapon Of Total Destruction, which is in fact, the principal power parents today have over their children: Changing The WiFi Password.
I have done this only on one occasion in living memory, and let me tell you, it was a wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth, Old Testament Plague, extinction-level event. In other words, a spectacular success, from my point of view.
I purposely relented and changed it back after an hour, because I didn’t want them to get used to it, i.e. discover that it wasn’t so bad after all, and start reading books or something. You really need to use your arsenal judiciously. Keep it scary.
The second-tier weapon my wife and I use is Time Out. The great thing about Time Out is that it is so ill-defined. This makes it really scary for smaller children. Essentially, it means, anything they might want to do at a particular moment is suddenly Not Allowed. No Youtube, no video games, no merienda, no nothing. They are reduced to staring into space, brooding.
In the case of our teenager, my wife had, of course, already evolved Time Out to Grounded, which used to make sense, before the pandemic, because he has a girlfriend and a barkada, who he would thus not be allowed to see. The pandemic made this rather meaningless (the whole world is “grounded”), so now, it consists largely of confiscating his mobile phone and laptop. Again, this happened just once, but it lasted a lot longer than an hour.
The other casual torture I inflict on our children is my Dad jokes, which they are all required to laugh heartily at, on pain of Time Out or Grounded. Unfortunately, our teenager has turned this against us, subjecting us to occasional bouts of Millennial Humor, which, bewilderingly, is supposed to be hilarious, because it’s not funny.
But that’s all stick. In my view, parenting should really be more about carrots than sticks. To this end, I have spawned maxims such as “Good Boys could potentially get many Godzilla Action Figures” and “The fulfilment of your fervent desire for a PS5 is ultimately dependent on your grades.”
Am I a good parent? Who knows? I’m doing what I think is right, at the time. As I said, We’re all flying blind, when you come right down to it.
I like our kids, and how they’re turning out. I am pretty sure that none of them will grow up to be a Trump, Duterte, or Hitler, which is just great, because really, that’s my main objective here.
Most importantly, I think they’re enjoying their childhoods. In fact, our six-year-old declared recently that he is not planning to grow up, ever. He just pretty much wants to stay as he is. I told him, sure, good luck with that. I wish it could be so.