Dear Souls and Hearts Community,
Imagine a person in my office, telling me…
“But I want you to know, Doc, that my parents, they did the best that they could in raising me.”
How many times have I heard that statement, in various forms in my work? My parents did the best that they could.
And that’s a lie.
And not only is it a lie, it’s more than that.
It’s a thought-stopping cliché. And that general, blanket statement that “my parents did their best with me” is also an insidious and harmful assumption that children absorb in childhood and take into adulthood – an assumption that can yield confusion and shame long after the parents are dead.
Breaking it down…
“Whoa, Dr. Peter,” you might be saying. Those are strong words. Lie? Thought-stopping cliché? Insidious assumption? Potential for lifelong harm?
Absolutely. Let’s back up a bit first, and review. Then we will break this statement (and all the similar ways of phrasing it) down.
Starting on April 20 and ending on June 1, 2022 I did a seven-part weekly reflection series on lying – you can look those reflections up on our blog now, and in that series, I refuted a number of ways that people justify lying, including white lies.
Now we are getting into one of the biggest whoppers that a parent can communicate to a child – the big fat lie that -- “I did the best I could.”
If that statement were true -- if your father really did do the best he could, if your mother really did the best she could – then there would be no formal sin in your parents’ conduct. God only holds us responsible for what we can manage. If it were actually true that your parents did the best they could in raising you, then they would be innocent of any formal sin. Why? Because they would have had insufficient knowledge or deliberation when they acted in any harmful way – after all, your parents (according to the cliché) did the best they could. So your parents would have no culpability – your mom and dad would be morally innocent before God and before you.
[Nota bene: There could still be material or “objective” sin, in the case when the parent didn’t know better or did not have sufficient volitional control of his or her actions. See this article by Ron Conte for helpful and clear distinctions between formal and material sin. But your parents would incur no moral guilt or responsibility, because “they did the best they could.”]
This assumed parental innocence flies in the face of Scripture, where St. Paul tells us in Romans 3:10 that “as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;” and just a little later in verse 23 that “… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
It is so, so common for parents to sin against their children. I have seven children ranging in age from 24 to 9 years old. It may well be that most of my sins are against my children. We live together, we rub up against each other all the time.
It’s not that I think I’m a terrible father. But because we have such close contact, there are plenty of opportunities for me to love my kids–and to fail to do love them.
And sinning is failing to love, as we discussed in the June 15, 2022 reflection, What is sin, really? Seven ways to understand sin.
This idea of alleged complete parental innocence also flies in the face of human experience. There is no one more able to get under the skin of a parent and activate shame than a child. There is no one more able than a child to bring up a deep sense of inadequacy and shame which then triggers all kinds of emotional reactions in a parent – anger, sadness, guilt. Then come the behavioral expressions -- aggression, intimidation, withdrawal, avoidance (i.e., the “silent treatment”) and so on.
Let me ask you -- When pressed and cross-examined, what honest father could really maintain that he really “did the best he could” in raising his son? What mother could truly say she “did the best she could” in raising her daughter? No mistakes. No moments when mom or dad “knew better” and didn’t take the loving course of action. Could you look me in the eyes (as my mother used to command when she wanted the truth out of me) and tell me that your parents did the best they possibly could with a straight face?
A word about sincerity…
Many parents, when they tell their children that they did the best they could in raising them, are sincere – they believe what they’re saying. Why? They are often disconnected, out of touch with their own interior life. They lack internal integration. They lack attunement with their children. And I don’t believe that this is usually out of malice. Parents have protector parts that are so focused on keeping them from being overwhelmed or flooded with shame, and with the emotions that flow from shame – the anger, depression, anxiety, guilt feelings of worthlessness.
I know of parents who have never apologized to their children for anything. Some were truly unable to recognize when they wronged their children. I had one father tell me that he never apologized to his children, even when he was in the wrong, for fear that they would lose respect for him. Many parents are unconsciously attempting to preserve their children’s idealization of them – they are insecure in being really who they are in parenting their children. Again, I believe this is primarily because of their unresolved shame and how fragile and brittle it makes their defenses.
When parents sincerely believe that they are doing the best they can, it makes it worse when there are the inevitable conflicts between parents and children. Let’s get into why.
A thought-stopping cliché
It is as if the parent were saying, “I am desperate, I’m working so hard, my boat is riding very low in the water. You, my son, my daughter, you need to keep the water calm. Don’t make waves. Don’t rock my boat. Or it may sink, and then where would we be?”
The undercurrent of this is a message that the child needs to take care of the parent’s emotional state. The child, who will do almost anything to maintain relationship with the parent, is now parentified, now in the role of the emotional and relational caretaker of the parent. The child is forced to understand the parent’s point of view, to be attuned to the parent’s needs, and make it “all right” and safe enough for the parent. This is a major role reversal for young children, and it is unfair and way too demanding.
The parental assertion, “I did the best I could” sounds inarguable, incontestable in the child’s ears. The child can make no appeal. The thought-stopping cliché signals an end of the conversation, and unwillingness for the parent to be real, honest, and present in the parent-child relationship.
Tragically, this self-justifying, thought-stopping cliché also reveals an inability or refusal to attune to the child and understand the child’s point of view, at least in that moment. It’s defensive, meant to protect the parent’s fragility; it’s not about connecting relationally.
In short, when a parent plays the “I did the best I could” card, that reflects a parental failure to love the child.
The emotional and relational consequences for the child
So what happens to the child to whom this message is communicated? The message is that when there is wrongdoing, when there is conflict, when there is tension, when there is misconduct, when there is fault in the parent-child relationship, it’s your fault, little one! Why? Because I, the parent “did the best that I could.” I am blameless. I am innocent. So in subtle, nonverbal, but still powerful ways, the child shoulders the blame, the responsibility for the wrong in the relationship.
The little daughter assumes that “Mommy did the best she could and things are wrong, so it must be my fault.” After all, that is what she was told. And she believes mommy. And that is a clear recipe for shame making. Even if the parent doesn’t mean it. Even if the parent doesn’t intend it. Even if the parent doesn’t realize it.
And to make it worse, since the parental “I did the best I could” card is irrefutable and driven by the parent’s defensiveness due to the insecurity secondary to shame – there can be no discussion, no exploration, no processing, no alternative meaning-making. Depending on the developmental age of the child, the child is in the difficult position of having one or more of three bad options:
going along with the lie of “parents did best he or she could” in order to preserve the relationship with the parent – but at the cost of denying the truth and repudiating their own experience – and that is crazy-making and a violation of the child’s integrity
fighting back and risking severe parental rebukes or the destabilization of the parent through emotional flooding or overwhelm, as well as alienation from the parent as the child attempts to preserve his integrity and a sense of reality
withdrawing from the parent, disconnecting emotionally and relationally
In summary, the parental “I did the best I could in raising you” cliché is wrong in three ways.
First, it’s wrong factually. It’s an objective false statement.
Second, it’s wrong morally. It’s a lie and a thought-stopping cliché with damaging consequences. It harms the parent-child bond, and induces shame in children.
Third, it’s wrong relationally. It drives wedges between parents and children, and it makes it so difficult or even impossible for young children to understand their experience. It parentifies children and makes them responsible for their parents’ well-being.
The parental call-to-action
So, what are we to do as parents? Apart from not saying that thought-stopping cliché, how can we better connect with our children, to avoid these negative consequences? Here is an action plan.
In your nightly general examination of conscience, deliberately consider your relationships with each of your children individually. Review your interactions (or non-interactions) of the day with each child. Consider not only commissions but also omissions. Where were my failures to love? It often helps to write them down for greater clarity. Incidentally, this also makes your confessions more precise.
Apologize to your children when you wrong them. Say the words “I’m sorry,” and be specific about the nature of your wrongdoing. Acknowledge your imperfections too.
Listen to your children about their reactions to such messaging, if it has been a part of your relationship, even if that was years ago.
Don’t tell other children that their parents did the best they could. You can’t possibly know that, and such assertions reinforce negative, shame-making messages that they may be getting from their parents.
Finally, do your own interior work to get to the root of so many of these kinds of problems – your shame. You can check out episodes 37 to 49 (here is a link to a downloadable PDF of the episode descriptions, and links to stream episodes) of my podcast Interior Integration for Catholics to learn so much more about this primary root causes so many psychological problems and symptoms.
Check out my two most recent podcasts episodes, number 94, The Primacy of Love and number 95, Trauma’s Devastating Impact on our Capacity to Love, if you haven’t already done so. These episode get much more into the subtle ways that our ability to love is undermined.
Help me help you and others…
Ok. I need your help. I have parts of me that hate to admit that and really don’t like typing these lines. These parts of me would like to be self-sufficient, able to take care of myself without help. They don’t like dependency, even healthy interdependency.
With your prayers
First, I want you to pray for Souls and Hearts. To pray specifically for your fellow members in this outreach. I can’t be the only one praying. Make the human formation and psychological needs of our members, as well as the spiritual needs a specific prayer intention. And please pray for me. I am quite aware of my limitations and weaknesses in co-piloting Souls and Hearts, in writing these weekly reflections, in doing the monthly podcast, in leading the Resilient Catholics Community and the Interior Therapist Community. I feel like I’m walking on water and too often, like my namesake, I’m focused on the wind and the waves, not on our Lord. So please pray for me.
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And thank you
Thank you for reading this. I wouldn’t write it if people like you didn’t read it. Thank you for giving these topics your time and attention.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,