I heard this story on the radio show This American Life, and it made me think. Most parents are trying to give their kids a “better life.” The dad in the story is maybe an extreme version of a particular behavior that I think all people share. The main story is a bit crazy to think about, but the underlying story between the dad and the two daughters is interesting and I think enlightening about human nature in general.
The dad had a rough childhood, and we don’t get the full story of what he went through but apparently it involved verbal and physical abuse. For him, he knew that was not good parenting and he wanted to do better with his own children. Although he did better than his parents, it was still not good enough to earn the respect of his two daughters and the girls have now cut off contact with him. Surprisingly, some of the behavior he hated in his own parents, he repeated toward his own family. It’s hard to know how conscious his re-enactment of the bad behaviors, because during the interview he denies that part of the story.
If the story is true, we can imagine how the dad developed coping mechanisms to distort reality, just to deal with the abuse he suffered as a kid. In a way, although he knew this behavior was not normal, it was normal to him. And therefor, the definition of being a good parent was altered to believe that being better than his parents was enough. I believe, that in a way, his entire parenting process was an attempt to hide the difficulties of his own childhood. However, having not dealt with his difficult childhood, he wasn’t prepared to be a supportive and non-abusive father.
The same discussion happens in the end of this Radiolab story. The initial story is wildly unusual. But it circles around to another difficult childhood and lifelong consequences as a person and a parent.