Distant, Disengaged, and Detached Parents


Why does it sicken Adrienne so much when we attend to our child’s injuries after an accident? I don’t get it. Are we overreacting, as she says? I don’t know. She seems pretty convinced that we are, and when I disagree with her, in the most polite and respectful ways, she becomes visibly agitated. She takes it personal. You can see it in her face. I understand what she’s saying. I’ve seen parents overreact. I think we all have, and it makes us sick too when we seek a parent overreact to a kid who cries out for no reason. We know when they’re not truly hurt. We know when they’re crying out for attention, and some of the times, their parents give it to them. Some of the times, we give such unwarranted attention to our child. No harm, no foul right? Well, she acts as if this is a violation of nature. There are other accidents. We know those too. Those that call for a special kind of TLC that only a mother can provide. She berates me on those occasions too. “It’s just not good for the kid to do that,” she says, “and he’ll never learn if you don’t teach him how to deal with it himself. You know what the kid’s doing, and yet, you still go so far overboard. You’re coddling the boy.”  

We know that there are extremes in both situations. We know it’s vital for their growth that our child learns to be self-sufficient, and we employ tough love on a case-by-case basis, but how often are we supposed to reinforce these measures? We know we shouldn’t cater to his every need and whim and that it’s not good for the kid when we do, but it disgusts Adrienne so much when she witnesses us console him that she can’t hide it. Why does it sicken her so much, and why is it so important her that we do nothing when our child gets hurt?   

Most childhood accidents are relatively benign, but some of the times those harmless incidents shock and scare kids. Proponents of tough love, such as Adrienne, don’t see that in the moment. Perhaps, the kids fear that they’re hurt more than they really were. They’re kids. They don’t know any better. She doesn’t see that either. She just sees a kid blubbering and a parent smothering. She thinks that if we employ tough love often he will learn what he doesn’t know any better. She thinks we need to let him cry it out of his system, and she suggests that we “Rub some dirt on it. It will better for him in the long run.” There are arguments to on both sides, but if we’re to follow her advice how far do we take it?

“Our parents employed tough love whenever we were injured,” Adrienne says, “and look how we turned out. I just think most parents coddle kids too much in the modern era. No one sprinted to our rescue, when we were kids, and we turned out just fine, and so did our kids and their kids.”

Adrienne has far more experience in parenting than we do, so our natural inclination is to cede to her knowledge on this matter, but who is Adrienne. Who informed her ideas on parenting. She would be the first to admit that her parents didn’t know how to love. “They were dirt poor, and they probably had too many kids, but they loved us the best way they knew how,” she said. When she went out on her own, she made the mistake of marrying a man she now admits was a person who “didn’t know the first thing about love”. She was young, too young to know any better. She probably married a man who reminded her of a father “who didn’t know how to love”. We all make mistakes when we’re young and we could chalk her first marriage up as mistake of youth, but how did it affect the kids she had with the man? Her first daughter entered into a loveless marriage, but she was young and she made the same mistake Adrienne did. Why did she make that same mistake? Was it a cyclical mistake? Now that we’ve met most of Adrienne’s children and grandchildren, we know that they’re all good people. They appear, at first glance, to be the type of children and grandchildren we all want. Everyone from the matriarch of the family, Adrienne, to the youngest grandchild, appears to be nice and well mannered. It’s obvious that she taught her kids how to raise their kids to be pleasant and respectful people, but if we spend time getting to know them, we notice that they all have a certain detached quality about them. They’re all successful in their own right, and they know how to be on their own, which is a quality all parents should strive for in their children, but they’re not exactly warm, inviting people. They’re reserved, detached, and they don’t accept outsiders well.

Tough love is such a vague term. We can employ it on a case-by-case basis, but we can overdo it. We can use it so often that we accidentally slip into some realm of ambivalence to our kids’ injuries, and we can do it so often that we slip into some level of emotional detachment? Is it possible that such progressions could serve to harm the child’s adult relationships, later in life? If we fail to react to his small accidents and accidentally begin to ignore his larger accidents too, our children will be disappointed. They’ll adapt and all that, and they might develop tough skin, but they could also develop some problems with attachments and love as an adult? Our initial instinct is to laugh that off as a dramatic example, but the human being is so complex and varied that there is no one-size-fits-all guide to parenting. Could our child develop such a thick skin that he develops personality disorders that lead to unusual levels of selfishness? When a child doesn’t receive the kind of attention from their parents that they need, some adjust and adapt to it wonderfully, and they become more independent and everything the tough love proponents profess, but others seek refuge in the form of substance abuse to mask that pain. We can say that Adrienne’s generation was tougher that we are, but how many of them became alcoholics to swallow the pain they could never communicate properly?

“No matter what you do, you’re going to mess up as a parent, we all do, and the kid will have to deal with the ramifications of your mistakes, but they’ll probably be in the same exact place, at around age 35, whether you were the best parent who ever existed or the worst. The trick is to prepare them for the years between 18 and 35, and the best way to do that is with tough love.”    

Those of us who had parents who intended to employ touch love measures and probably took it too far now find it difficult to watch those movies, or TV shows, that depict parents who don’t care about their kids. With the full power of honest reflection, those of us with an adult, rational mind know that our parents cared about us, but something about the depiction of emotionally detached parents still affects us so much that we can’t watch. The art of comedy involves breaking taboos, and at this point, there aren’t many left to exploit, so the exaggerated jokes about parents not caring about their kids is one of the few left. This situational story line is not new though, as there were shows, movies, and various other productions in the 70’s that depicted narcissist parents who wouldn’t make time for their kids. The kids were the main characters of these productions, as the parents floated in and out of their lives, and the thrust of these pieces involved how children learn to adapt. The children in these pieces would say heartwarming things like, “Our mother was a wandering soul who couldn’t stay in one place for long. We knew her, and we knew she loved us in her own way, but we had to learn how to love her [on her terms].” These productions never portrayed such parents as selfish narcissists, and their perspective was invariably favorable to the mother. They painted her as a strong woman who considered the term mother stifling. We were too young at the time to ask the question, “Why did she have them then?” but that question wasn’t too far away. Most of these concepts were too complex for us, but the portrait they painted in these productions left us with a pit in our stomach, and we often just changed the channel. We didn’t know the details regarding why we considered this such a painfully flawed model, but our exaggerated reaction to it should’ve told us more than we wanted to know about our situation.

Our exaggerated reactions to our parents’ emotionally detached ideas on child rearing might also result in our exaggerated reactions to our child’s accidents. Those of us who cater to our children too much might be trying to rectify the problems of our past, and we might be trying to break the loveless cycle.

Kids learn the nature of their world at a very young age, and the imprint their parents provide often shapes their worldview in an almost irreversible manner. They have a wonderful ability to adapt to the changes that occur in the home, but that imprint often remains. They also gravitate to the notions people have regarding their characteristics. If they’re pretty when they’re young, for example, they gravitate to that notion. Similarly, if they’re funny, smart, strong, athletic, etc. they develop a passion for the pursuits that call for those attributes. In this sense, we could say that passion is almost exclusive to the young for they don’t know better than to invest emotions in something otherwise consider unattainable by more experienced adults. The pain involved in learning limitations is also the province of the young, for nothing hurts worse than discovering limitations for the first time. “You’re pretty,” the guardians at the gate say, “but you’re not that pretty.”

We all learn our limitations, at some point, and we adjust. We learn our limitations when that employer says we’re not smart enough, when our peers say we’re not as funny as we thought, or when a woman says we’re not so handsome that they will date us. We might adapt and adjust by choosing a different pursuit, or a different profession, but we never have the same amount of passion for our adjusted pursuit as we do the dream we pursued in youth when we fantasized about what we might become. On that note, we could say that when a child cries out for attention, as opposed to pain, they are passionately seeking the extent of their parents’ unconditional love, and if the parents fail to respond, the children will adapt, but they might never pursue love again with the same passion. That might prepare them for the ways of the world, but it will also leave an almost irreversible imprint.

In debates such as these, we often reach an impasse. One of the two parties might say, “Can we agree to disagree on this matter?” Proponents of tough love might even say yes, at first, and they might try to move on, but they can’t drop it. It sickens them too much to see parents climb all over themselves to react to a child’s obvious cries for attention to remain silent in the face of it. They cannot hide it, and they keep coming back to it.

Why does this make me so angry?” I asked myself while witnessing a parent fall all over herself to run to the aid of her child. I never considered that question before was the first thing I realized. I was so convinced that my dad, Adrienne, and all proponents of tough love were right that I never considered the ramifications of overdoing it before. I considered the ‘smothering’ reactions to benign accidents such a violation of everything I knew that I considered it a limited ‘I’m right, they’re wrong’ debate, and I still do to some degree, but I never explored why seeing egregious violations makes me so angry before. The answer to that question is that some of the times these impulsive reactions are so impossibly complex that we don’t even bother searching for them. Another answer that calls upon Occam’s razor, suggests that some of the times the answer is so simple that it gets lost in our search for complexities. The answer also has something to do with the idea that when we get so angry over something so trivial that we’re all but baring our teeth is that it might involve some deep-seeded begrudged feelings and psychological underpinnings. The simple answer might also have something to do with the idea that when we were involved in accidents no one ran to our aid. We remember how everyone probably employed tough love a little too often, and while we concede that we might’ve been drama queens, it hurt our feelings when they left us alone, in the middle of the park, crying. Some of the times, the answer is so simplistic that it can’t possibly be true, but when we think about how bent out of shape we, otherwise reasonable people get on this issue, we realize that we might just be jealous.