November 22, 2006

Dysfunction, Abuse, and Neglect

(Another in Series of Letters from Concerned Parents (If you would like to submit a question for Mac to answer, please feel free to post your question at the bottom of the page!)

(As an introduction to this letter, let me just tell you that I have since been in contact with this mother and she assured me that she was never considering any kind of stoppage in her efforts to be a great parent... she was just asking a theoretical question.)

A Question

Hi Mac,

I have a question. I was just noticing how most of the leaders of the world come from very hard/dysfunctional/abusive... childhoods. It kind of makes you think doesn't it? What I want to know is, with all the good parenting we give to our kids, are we really serving them well for their future? (Obviously, I'm not going to parent my children any less than my best because of this, I'm just curious).

I'm eager to hear your opinion.

Kind regards,
Wondering Mom

An Answer

Dear Mom,

I seldom receive questions of a general nature like this but I will try to answer your question as honestly as I can.

First, let me tell you that in my line of work, I find far more people who have been irreparably damaged by "hard/dysfunctional/abusive... childhoods" than I have found people who become leaders of the world from "hard/dysfunctional/abusive... childhoods"!

I would not disagree with you that there are many people who have difficult times in life, but who still go on to achieve very high levels of performance and leadership... However, I would contend that those who made it to the top did it in spite of their circumstance rather that because of them! In addition, I would contend that people who live successful lives after living through dysfunction and abuse, are definitely, the minority! Most people from that type of background live lives filled with anguish, failed dreams, misery, and self-doubt. Few have much in the way of positive self-esteem and even fewer live fulfilled lives.

"Are we doing our children a disservice by being a good parent?" I cannot believe that someone would consider that as a rational thought. I'm sure you don't. The thought of intentionally raising a child in dysfunction or abuse in order to help them is so ludicrous that I am surprised that I am even answering this question! I know that you are just asking in theory, but it still is a shocking question to me. However, the question does bring up some good ideas!

Well, in answer to your question, "I want to know, with all the good parenting we give to our kids, are we really serving them well for their future? " I must reply that it seems to me, that your picture of good parenting must be quite different from mine. I do NOT believe that good parenting just protects kids from life. I believe that truly effective parenting teaches kids to live life, all of it, good and bad alike. And good parenting teaches children to deal with tough times in a positive way. You seem to be equating good parenting with some kind of a soft life... but not me. Ask our kids if they lived in a soft home. I'm sure that the answer would be a resounding, "NO! We worked harder than most kids our age!"

Our curriculum is being used in over 52 prisons nationwide and I have visited most of those institutions. Those institutions a filled with people who were raised in homes of dysfunction and abuse! I did not meet many world leaders in those places! I have met thousands of inmates and the most universal characteristic of those, mostly miserable, incarcerated men is that almost every one came from a dysfunctional home!

An Easy Life?

I will say this in answering your question... anyone who reads my material and gets from what I am teaching that I believe that we ought to make life easy for kids has misinterpreted what I am trying to teach. In no way would I ever propose that parents ought to orchestrate an easy and unchallenging life for their children. On the contrary, I believe with all of my heart that children ought to be challenged by difficult decisions and tough and demanding work, whether it is at home, school, athletics, music, or where ever. Most of life’s great lessons are taught by overcoming obstacles.

Life’s Great Lessons

Doing your best for your children rarely implies that you are going to orchestrate success for them. Some of the most challenging and difficult situations teach the most to your children. Attempting to reach for something great and coming up short teaches some of the best lessons in life!

Dealing with Unfair People

When one of our sons would come home and tell me that a teacher was not fair, I didn’t go to the school and try to change the teacher. My advice to our children was to ask them to try to figure out what the teacher wanted them to do. Once they figured that out, I would ask them, "Is what the teacher is asking you to do a violation of any of your values, morals, or ethics? If not, then I would strongly advise you to do what the teacher wants you to do, to the best of your ability, or just accept what you get... but it is your choice! In life you will run into unfair people and you need to learn how to deal with them. Most of the time it works best to give your best effort no matter what. I'm here if you want to run your ideas by me. I will be watching with interest to see how you deal with this situation."

Help Children to Learn from Difficult Situations

The key for the effective parent is to be there for their children to help them learn from disappointments and tough times. Do NOT ever interpret what Parenting with Dignity is teaching to mean that parents ought to protect their children from tough situations! We do NOT teach that.

All we say is that we parents have the obligation to protect our children if an action or situation is illegal, immoral, or life threatening! I those situations, we as parents, ought to step in to prevent them from irreparably damaging themselves but the rest of the time we ought to let them learn from their actions and give the guidance in making good decisions for themselves. We ought to be teaching them the values, morals, ethics, and other rules that will help them to make good decisions. then we ought to be guiding them in how to use those ideas as the ones that they choose to rule their world. (See Lessons 7 & 8 in our Parenting with Dignity Curriculum or Chapters 10 and 11 in my book Parenting with Dignity.

Save Children from “Speeding Trucks”…
Let Them Take On Most of the Rest of Life’s Challenges!

Like I have said many times, the way I kept my actions straight in my head was to ask myself, "If my son was running for the street and there was a big truck coming that would kill him, would I act to stop him from running into the path of certain death? Well, of course I would prevent that from happening. But going outside in cool weather without a coat is not in any way like a speeding truck. Let him go outside and feel what it feels like without a coat and then let him learn to make adjustments in his own behavior.

I hope that what you are speaking of in your question is the way that so many parents, in the name of what they perceive to be "good parenting" deny their children the right to experience some of the results of their own bad decisions. Life can be a good instructor, but the tragedy is when kids make bad decisions and their parents are nowhere in the picture to help them learn HOW to make a better decision the next time.

We Must Act as Parents at Critical Times

Like I said, there are times when I believe that parents ought to be there to prevent children from even trying to learn from their mistakes. Some things that come to mind immediately would be drugs, sex, violence, breaking the law, or unsupervised use of the Internet. Some of the consequences of those behaviors are so dire and so long lasting and life changing that our children cannot be allowed to just experiment with those things in order to learn that there might be dire consequences! Our prisons are full of people who had that kind of parenting.

That being said, I believe that children should be challenged by difficult circumstances and situations. While they are being challenged, I believe that they need someone to act as their teacher and guide.

Most Great Leaders Overcome Difficult Situations...
Because of Great Teachers!

The one thing that separates the world's great leaders who arrived at their positions having come from hard/dysfunctional/abusive childhoods, and the criminals I have met who came from similar situations, is that every person I have met who became successful, in spite of their situation, can point to one or more good teachers in their lives!

I would suggest that you too do some research and find out about those great leaders form humble backgrounds! I believe that you will find, just as I have, that all of them had at least one or more great teachers who helped them to overcome their situation or circumstance.

Now I do not use "teacher" in this sense, as to mean just a schoolteachers. Many of those people count one or both parents as their great teachers. Others point to a pastor or a big brother or big sister. Maybe it was an aunt or an uncle. For me, I can point to some fantastic teachers that I have had in my life. The key elements in the lives of all successful people, were the great teachers in their lives who helped them to learn the important lessons in life! Are you choosing to be one of your children's great teachers? Or will your kids have to find their teacher someplace else?

Don’t Just Protect Your Children…
Teach Them!

With your children, I would never advise you to just protect them from life. What I am trying to advise you to do is to be their teacher; to help them learn life's important lessons, whether they be tough or easy!

When our son and his wife bought a little farm in Western New York, there was a 3-acre lake on their 34-acre property. One of their friends came to me to try to make me promise that I would see to it that our son built a locked fence around the lake to protect our four grandchildren. "Oh that water just scares me to death!" she said, through pleading tears.

You need to hear my answer to that lady... I said, "No, ma'm, you have it all wrong. Our son and daughter-in-law need to teach their kids to swim! Building a fence only protects them from that lake! What about all of the other water in the world? If they teach them to swim, then... no water, anywhere, poses much of a danger to them! They still might fall in, but they would know how to get themselves safely to shore and out of the water!" (Just to let you know, all of our grandchildren could swim, unaided, in the deep end of the pool for five minutes, by the age of two.)

That story is a great metaphor for raising children. We cannot protect them from all of the world... but we can teach them how to live in it safely and with fulfillment! That to me ought to be the goal of all effective parenting.

I hope that helps for you to understand how I feel about your question.


Mac Bledsoe

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