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How to Learn from Your Parents, Even if They Weren’t The Greatest

I want to tell you a story about my father. The story is sad, but hopeful. And if you can tolerate the sorrow, my hope is that you’ll come away from this article with a greater appreciation for all the wonderful things you can learn from your parents, no matter how you feel about the way they raised you.

But before you read any further, I want to warn you that this post contains descriptions of violence and trauma. But there is a lesson here for those willing to forge ahead.

Growing up with Dad

My father obtained custody of me when I was 7 years old. As a result, I spent a good portion of my childhood in my father’s lonely apartment, missing my mother.

My father tried so hard to keep me entertained. He took me to the park. The playground. Six Flags. The fair. The mall. He took me to movies, endless parades of movies in air-conditioned theaters on hot summer days. We played hide-and-seek, tag, pin the tail on the donkey. When I was 8, he rigged up a rope swing in the spare bedroom and spent hours pushing me, his giggling son, while singing strange songs from the Big Band Era in his soft, warbling voice.

My father loved me, but didn’t know what to do with me, so he surrounded me with toys. But to a 7-year-old boy, the hugs and kisses of a loving family are just about the most important things in the world, and my father could not give me that because he just wasn’t the kind of guy to openly express emotion. And since he didn’t have any friends and couldn’t form lasting relationships, most of the time it was just me and Dad, and I was lonely all the time.

And Dad had a temper.

One time, when I was maybe 8, I said something he didn’t like (I don’t remember what), and he smacked me so hard across the face that I spilled out of my chair and landed on the floor, stunned and silent. Another time, he punched me in the head because I closed the hatchback on his car too hard. And that was my life: lavish gifts punctuated by fits of violence, complimented by a steady undercurrent of estrangement.

Dad and The Women

“Women don’t make good decisions,” he would say. “They’re too emotional.”

He plowed though 4 marriages in his life (my mother his last) because he could not form lasting connections with women.

He didn’t get along with women, and he didn’t relate to people, and he couldn’t form lasting relationships, and he was violent, and I found it increasingly hard to believe that some common thread didn’t connect these dots.

My Father’s Childhood

When my father was a small boy, maybe 6, he went to visit his mother for the weekend and something terrible happened that changed his life, permanently altering his ability to relate to others.

I don’t know how the argument started or how it progressed to the extremes I’m about to describe. All I know is that my dad’s mother was an alcoholic, and she’d been drinking. For some reason, her boyfriend was running away from her (I mean literally running away from her) across an empty field as she shambled out onto the porch after him in her slippers and housecoat with a shotgun slung over her shoulder.

She screamed, “Get back here! Don’t you run away from me! You get back here and finish this argument like a man!” Her words came out in a drunken rush, and she stumbled forward, swinging the rifle around so it was aimed in the general direction of her boyfriend, who by this point was 30 yards gone.

She pulled the trigger. The shotgun blast echoed across the field. A cluster of black birds scattered toward the sky. And at that very moment, her boyfriend slipped and fell.

She thought she had shot him. That was the great, Shakespearean tragedy that derailed my young father’s life.

Falsely believing herself a murderess, she put the barrel of the shotgun in her mouth. Then she pulled the trigger. And this time, she didn’t miss.

My father, six years old, was standing next to his mother on the front porch of their Texas farmhouse when she decided to end her life. And that’s where the neighbors found him 4 hours later, still screaming. Standing over his mother’s body, screaming and screaming as the moon rose and the rain started to fall and all things good drained out of the world.

Dime Store Psychologist: Who, Me?

I am not a psychologist. I don’t even play one on TV. And I’m smart enough to understand that a person’s behavior can rarely, if ever, be tied back to a single childhood event. And even if it were possible, I would never want to condense my father’s motivations to such an unromantic singularity. Like all of us, there is more to my father than can be explained in a single blog post.

And in any case, my father’s specific motivations aren’t really the point. The point is that Dad was a fighter. He grew up, joined the military, fought in World War 2, took advantage of the G.I. Bill and went to college. And even though I wasn’t around to see any of this, I knew the man that he eventually became, and his personal transformation was amazing. He went from poverty to financial stability, despair to hope, and taught me much in the process.

As proof that it’s possible to learn lessons even from less-than-perfect parents, I offer you the top 7 lessons I learned from my father:

1) When it comes to relationships, trying counts: My father tried very hard to keep me happy when I was a child, and although he failed, looking back on it, I am comforted simply knowing I was worth the effort. You may have someone in your life right now who either does not appreciate or does not understand everything you’re doing for him, and it might seem like your efforts are wasted, but one day, you both might feel differently.

2) Make sure your heart’s in the right place: My father had a way of rubbing people the wrong way. But as an adult, I understand his heart was in the right place most of the time. He wanted me to be happy, warm, and safe. He wanted me to learn and grow. He wanted me to be successful. There is a big difference between a parent who makes mistakes out of love, and one who makes mistakes because he’s a rotten person. And when your children are grown, their perception of you will be more about the big picture than the details, so make sure you’re always acting out of love.

3) You have to do what’s right for you: I respect and love my father, but we were too different to live together happily. You can’t subject yourself to an unhealthy living arrangement just because someone’s heart is in the right place. You have to take care of you.

4) Keep trying: Obstacles that would have defeated lesser men beset my father. First, there was his mother’s death. Then there was World War 2. Then there were academic tests that said he was an idiot (an actual intelligence category at that time), but he still became the first person in his family to ever graduate from college and spent 30 good years doing highly analytical work, all because he never gave up.

5) Financial stability is more important than expensive toys: My father was raised in Depression Era Texas and knew how to stretch a dollar. He taught me to keep ample savings, live below my means, and pay off debts. And he was right. The life resulting from frugality is so much happier than that resulting from shop-o-mania.

6) Don’t let your nerves get the best of you: Dad had sweaty palms all the time. And he was nervous, so nervous about life in general. But it never stopped him from taking care of his business.

7) Don’t blame others for your own failures: And maybe the most important thing I learned from my father is that every person is responsible for himself. And no matter what terrible things have happened to you – now matter how you may have been victimized – your success is your own responsibility.

So at this point, you may be wondering if I think my father was a good parent. When I was younger, I guess I didn’t think so. But a thing can look different to a man at different times in his life.

He loved me. That much is clear. And he did the best he could with what he had.

Listen, I realize some of you may have been raised by terrible human beings. But most parents aren’t evil. They’re just ill equipped.

It’s almost like every person is given a parenting toolbox, and inside this toolbox are all the lessons they learned from their role models, all the books they’ve read, all the so-called experts they’ve listened to, all their intentions and love and confusion and hope, and when they finally have children, they open this toolbox and use what’s inside to take care of them.

I hope your parents had all the right tools in their toolbox. But if they didn’t, I hope they had the most important tool of all: a good heart.

And here’s to hoping that you can build upon whatever they gave you, whether it was sufficient or not.

JohnPlace

24 Responses to “How to Learn from Your Parents, Even if They Weren’t The Greatest”

  • Carolina says:

    I think this is by far your most inspiring post I have read.

    Thank you

  • ZHereford says:

    Wow John, this is an amazing story and inspiring!

    There is no doubt that none of us is perfect and we often inherit challenging “baggage” from our parents. What a great way to put it in perspective!

  • Ann says:

    Wow, that was intense. Thank you for sharing. You seem to show a measure of understanding and insight about your parents I hope we can all emulate. I think that when a child understands his parents, he shows his markings as a true adult. And even more so, becomes the “first step” in stopping the vicious cycle of abuse that gets carried from generation to generation. Again, thank you for this post!

  • Mary Paddock says:

    ” . . . most parents aren’t evil. They’re just ill equipped.

    It’s almost like every person is given a parenting toolbox, and inside this toolbox are all the lessons they learned from their role models, all the books they’ve read, all the so-called experts they’ve listened to, all their intentions and love and confusion and hope, and when they finally have children, they open this toolbox and use what’s inside to take care of them.”

    I would like to quote you at some point, if you wouldn’t mind.

    mary

  • Anthony says:

    John,
    Thank you so much for sharing something so personal. I believe my parents have a good heart but they could get some new tools. It was very touching and the lessons were very powerful indeed. Hopefully I’ll remember them when I have children of my own. Once again Thank you.
    -Anthony

  • JohnPlace says:

    Carolina/ZHereford/Anthony: Thank you for the kind words.

    Ann: Excellent observation re “stopping the cycle of abuse.”

    Mary: Yes, feel free to quote me. I would be honored.

  • Jason says:

    That certainly is a rough way to start out your life… it’s amazing that he overcame it as much as he did. I know it must have gone through his mind more than once that it was his fault, and that he wasn’t even worth living for… how sad.

    Thank you for sharing this story… you can learn from anyone, regardless of whether they are good, bad, or indifferent. Even if someone is truly a rotten person, you can learn what not to do. And, in the end, even the most seemingly rotten person is acting out of their own pain, so perhaps you can forgive them, and learn from that.

  • Lin Burress says:

    John, I came across this post while Stumbling and wanted to tell you how proud I feel that you told this story.

    Oftentimes people who write about very personal things such as this get criticized for having done so. I mean, “It’s on the Internet!”

    Not only is it personally therapeutic to write from personal experience and perspective, but it also helps others who have similar backgrounds to understand they are not alone, where readers can connect better with you as the writer.

    I must applaud you for writing this post, and I hope visitors and readers will learn valuable lessons from your story, and take from it the uplifting values we all need to work on and improve our parenting skills despite having come from difficult backgrounds, whatever those might be.

  • John, this is my first visit here and you obviously are willing to write about deeply meaningful issues.

    My background is psychology and I have been a therapist for over 30 years. The impact of past trauma goes on as long as the decisions we made in those moments guide us in our lives today. In other words the events and our reactions to them are carried forward into the now and may color, hinder or for some drive them forward.

    The past is the past and all parents bring their own baggage forward. The best hope is to shine light on what was not ok in the past and to discontinue the cycle of violence and shame for this generation.

    The goal here is the awareness of self and unexamined beliefs. From there comes the possibility to grow, to be whole, to have an open heart, to function fully, and to live with purpose and joy.

    Keep up your writing. It is needed in the world.

    Joseph
    http://www.ExploreLifeBlog.com
    http://www.Peace-Together.com

  • Hi John, thanks for the message on parents.
    I’m the only son, my parents love me very much, in a way that spoiled me, resulting the selfish, timid and shy nature I have.
    There is a time when I blame all those characteristics to my parents, not taking responsibility over it, but I’ve been growing up and learning that I am responsible for who I am right now. Yes, it’s a habit I have learned for the past 20 years, but I need to learn to unlearn and learn the new things.

    I share more in my post…

    Being extraordinary: Excuses you need to stop!

    I like one statement quoted from the Affirmation, a song by Savage Garden.

    I believe your parents did the best job they knew how to do

    It’s just the same as what you shared about the toolbox. They have a good heart, they did only the best that they knew how to do.

    And you have to take responsibility of your life now.. not blaming them.

    It’s really a great post.
    Thanks for sharing, hope that it will help your readers love their parents more.

    Cheers,
    Robert

  • JohnPlace says:

    Jason: Thanks for the comment!

    Lin: Thank you for the kind words of encouragement. There are some things I won’t write about on this blog (not because they’re too personal, but rather because they involve others who wouldn’t want the stories shared), but very few topics are off limits here, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. :-)

    Joseph: Thank you for sharing your professional thoughts regarding this topic.

    Robert: It sounds like you’re making great strides!

  • Rob Moshe says:

    I agree, some of the things in life that I learned to avoid was because of a parent who made that wrong choice.

    Kudos

  • […] How to Learn from Your Parents, Even if They Weren’t the Greatest – A moving story about parent-child relationships in an imperfect […]

  • Lana says:

    John,
    While I read this blog, I felt something within me change…the title alone was meaningful. Is there such a thing as “subtly profound?” That’s what it feels like to me.

    Not only does your message come across clearly but your descriptive writing, even with or especially with a subject so intense, is beautiful.

    Keep up the great work!
    -Lana

  • Jenny Bautista-Caparas says:

    Thanks John,

    Exactly a month ago, i got married and started thinking what type of parent i would be since i came from a broken family, with almost no memory of my father (i was too young when he left us to remember any) and a silent mom.

    By looking at the best example, God our father, we could be the best parents, when we look to people we might stumble and fall,

    So let us look UP so we will never feel down!

    Keep on insipiring people!

    Jenny

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  • Sarah Altman says:

    John, I have come from similar circumstances and I have learned to forgive myself for the poor parenting I gave my children. Mine was more of over protection and permissiveness and control because of the harshness and chaosI experienced growing up. I have worked for many years to change me. I have apologised to my children and told them that “I did the best I could with what I had. When I got more I did better.” I am a counselor and I tell my clients that they did the best they could but it is their responsibility to learn and to apply what they learn so that they can do better.

  • Robin says:

    Dear John,

    Although I may be merely a junior high school student, I came across your website and been blessed to find such meaningful and inspiring lessons from you.

    Being a foreign immigrant, I had to experience terrible financial instability and my parents’ lack of abilities to speak english. During those years, being merely a child, I faced countless difficulties due to childish needs and almost resented them while comparing to friends’ parents and others.

    However, now I realize how hard it must have been for them to continue to bear the fact of not being able to fulfill their child’s needs and the pain they must have bore throughout all. After 5 years now, my parents have opened a restaurant and despite minor improvements from working as janitors, the times are still challenging and due to recession recently, it is still painful to live knowing that they are working zealously everyday to help me and my brother to go to school.

    Reading your article not only gave me hope, but it gave me that there are many like us that must endure through such difficult childhood. I wish to thank you from bottom of my heart and eagerly look forward to hear from you more. Thank you.

  • jenny bautista-caparas says:

    Dear John,

    Almost 2 yrs had passed & I came across this comment that I have made just few days after I got married =) so much has changed since then,I am now a hands on mother of an 8th month old baby boy a step mom to a 7 yrs old boy,a working mom,a wife & a friend.I’ve lerned in life that you have to leave your past behind you,forgive,love and be a better person pray continiously so life will be meaningful

  • Kriszia says:

    Thank you very much for sharing powerful,moving, and inspiring stories John.This is the first time I came across your website.What you are doing will serve as an eye opener to everyone.
    I always believe that the past should be used as a weapon not to destroy or punish yourself or others but as a weapon to grow and learn.

    I also had wounds.I came from a broken family.My Mom left me with my relatives in the Philippines to work overseas.I didn’t grow up with my Mom and Dad.I looked for my father 7years ago through the internet.I saw him for the first time last January 2010 here in the States.Now I can say I am healed.I found my strength from God.And I let go of all the hatred, grudge, and pain.

  • Great post! Keep me updated with your progress.

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