Bad Parents, Bad Kids

Photo: cometary | Canva 
Angry little boy throwing a block

I was a good kid. I followed instructions. I sat still when I was told to sit still. I did my schoolwork and mostly did my chores.

It’s true, I got in trouble once for starting a hate club against a girl I was jealous of in the fourth grade, but that wasn’t my fault. The getting in trouble part, I mean. If our careless secretary hadn’t left our meeting minutes on her desk for anyone to find, no one would have been the wiser.

And yes, I fought viciously with my younger sister, but that was only because she didn’t accept her place in the sibling hierarchy  —  that is, beneath me  —  and it was up to me to keep her in check. That bloody scratch on her back that I convinced her not to tell Mom and Dad about? It didn’t scar, and to my knowledge, there was no lasting trauma.

I’ll admit, I drank a bit too much on more than one occasion during the second semester of my senior year in high school. I even threw a few parties when my parents were out of town. But the house was always clean when they returned  —  maybe, I worried, too clean  —  all the vomit scrubbed away and beer bottles dutifully deposited at the recycling center down the street.

I was a college-bound, straight-A student, besides. I followed all the rules. Okay, not all of them. But I hated getting into trouble, and I knew how to project the appearance of following all the rules. In retrospect, I was sometimes conniving and not always kind. But according to the adults, I was a good kid. Except, of course, for that hate club thing. That one time I got caught.

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Mixed messages on good kids

Despite multiple evolutions in parenting styles over the years, it’s funny that our notions of what makes a “good kid” haven’t changed. Maybe we no longer expect kids to address adults as “sir” or “ma’am,” but a good kid is still a kid who sits still. Who stays quiet. Who listens and does what they’re told. Who follows the rules.

When we say “good kids,” what we mean, of course, are “compliant kids.” Even if the so-called compliant kids are taking liberties behind our backs, at least they’re not being disruptive. Even if they’re not always being kind, at least they’re not being loud.

Kids who throw tantrums in grocery store checkout lines, kids who don’t listen in school, kids who disrupt adult gatherings  —  these are the “bad kids.” Their parents are “bad parents” by extension. Why do these bad parents let their kids run wild? Why don’t they control them? Honestly, why do they ever even let them leave the house?

Bad Parents, Bad KidsPhoto: antoniodiaz / Shutterstock

I always believed I’d have “good kids” because I was a good kid. I wanted good kids because I didn’t want anyone to think I was a bad parent. What I got was a daughter who started pushing limits in the womb. Literally. Not content with the boundaries of my uterine walls, she managed to flip herself upside down and lodge her head beneath my rib cage.

She was born with a set of lungs that the surgeon who plucked her out deemed “impressive.” Her bobo (pacifier) was our saving grace. Without it, or more accurately, without the dozens of different bobos we bought over the years, I’m not sure I ever would have felt comfortable venturing out in public with my baby, then toddler, in tow. Even with her bobo in hand, or more accurately, in her mouth, I still got plenty of sideways glances, raised eyebrows, and shaking heads.

Why couldn’t I control my child? Why couldn’t I make her listen? These were the questions that haunted me for most of her early childhood. I began to believe I was a bad parent  —  or at the very least, an ineffective one.

I have no desire to return to the "spare the rod, spoil the child" or “children should be seen and not heard” parenting philosophies of previous generations, but I have to admit, there is an enviable consistency in the messaging. These days, we honor our children’s expression, validate their feelings, and highlight the courage of leaders who question the status quo.

But at the end of the day, we still reward compliance.

Everyone says my daughter’s strong will and natural intensity will serve her in adulthood, particularly as a multiracial woman who won’t have anything handed to her. But is it serving her in childhood? She’s learned the hard way that not following the rules in school, even if she sometimes has valid reasons to question the rules, gets her in a whole heap of trouble. 

She’s learned that teachers, who already have plenty on their plates, aren’t all that interested in why she doesn’t want to follow the rules. She’s learned that her parents, who also have plenty on their plates, might take the time to listen and might even understand her perspective, but they also don’t have the time to respond to all these calls and emails and can she just make everyone’s lives easier and follow the rules for now? All that challenging the status quo stuff can come later.

We live in a society that pays lip service to individual expression but has, at the same time, lost all patience for children. Please, our sidelong glances say, don’t let your kids express themselves at my cousin’s wedding, or during brunch, or at the grocery store checkout line. Sure, their feelings are valid, but I don’t care that they’re bored right now, and what I need them to do is be good kids, by which of course I mean stay quiet and sit still.

RELATED: Why Trying To Raise 'Good' Kids Is A Huge Mistake

Social context on parenting

When we cast judgments about bad kids and bad parents, we also tend to completely gloss over the social contexts in which today’s parents are raising their children. Parents, after all, are easy scapegoats. We love to make fun of “helicopter moms,” for instance, whom we hold responsible for all sorts of bad behavior in today’s children  —  like entitlement, immaturity, and lack of independence.

I, for one, have no love for helicopter-style parenting. I’ve invested quite a bit of energy in proactively adopting an opposite free-range parenting approach (which has also attracted its share of criticism) so that my children can build resilience and learn how to navigate the world on their own. But when we rail against helicopter moms  —  and yes, we tend to hold mothers much more accountable for children’s bad behavior  —  we completely miss the bigger picture.

Did helicopter parenting come about because a bunch of neurotic moms randomly woke up one day and decided to start coddling their children? This may sound absurd, but it’s implied in the stories we tell ourselves about “kids these days.” What happened, of course, is far more complex.

The movement has its roots in the “stranger danger” fear-mongering of our mainstream news, starting with highly publicized kidnappings in the ’80s and ’90s. Of course, when compared to all the other dangers lurking out there, kidnappings have always been, and remain, highly statistically unlikely. But it’s hard to focus on statistics when missing children’s faces are staring you down from the backs of milk cartons as you eat your breakfast cereal.

Parallel trends have led to a lot less unstructured, unsupervised play around the neighborhood  —  including the rise of car-dependent suburban living, declines in civic and community engagement, media-driven perceptions of rising crime even in decades when crime rates were dropping, and the ever-multiplying screens that lure kids inside.

I know plenty of parents whom I wouldn’t describe as “helicopter parents,” but now structured activities have become the social norm. Even if I want my kids to run around the neighborhood, which I do, it’s exceedingly difficult to find other children for them to run around with. Out of over 200 kids at my son’s elementary school, he’s one of only a handful that walks without an adult to school. But at age eight, as dictated by school policy, he still needs to be accompanied by an older child; he’s not allowed to leave the school grounds by himself, with another second-grader, or with a younger child.



According to a series of books published in 1979 that offers checklists of age-appropriate milestones, a six-year-old should know their left from their right and be able to “travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to the store, school, playground, or a friend’s home.” Oh, how times have changed.

And that’s the thing  —  times are always changing.

Older generations of parents love to judge younger generations of parents, but we fail to acknowledge the myriad ways that the landscape has evolved. We are more isolated than past generations, and so are our children, whom Big Tech is shamelessly exploiting in a grand social experiment with devastating consequences.

Today’s parents not only weathered a global pandemic that upended every system and institution we relied on to support our families while keeping our children meaningfully engaged, but as we emerged from those years gasping for air, we also found ourselves amid a persistent and worsening childcare crisis. We found ourselves paying more for goods and services that were only becoming less and less accessible. We found ourselves parenting under the shadow of climate change and the ever-present threat of devastating natural disasters. 

RELATED: 4 Ways Being A Helicopter Parent Is Making Your Kids Sick

The mental load

Yes, life today is more stressful than it used to be. We can all feel it, but research backs this up. Increasing stress levels are directly attributable to evolutions in technology, changing relationship dynamics, and increasing economic hardship, among other factors.

Wasn’t technology supposed to make life easier? I, for one, frequently find myself wondering what has happened to all the time and energy our smartphones claimed to gift us. Maybe we can effortlessly take pictures or deposit checks, but now we also find ourselves with 36 million photos to sort through and 89 subscriptions to manage, most of which we swear we’ve already canceled. We spend hours responding to disparate bits of information that seem to be hurtling at us from all directions  —  app notifications, text chains, emails, weather alerts. If there’s one word that can most accurately capture my state of mind at any given time, it’s “flooded.”

We are a generation obsessed with time-saving devices and technology, but we never have enough time.

Bright Horizon’s 8th Annual Modern Family Index reports: “… nearly two-thirds (60%) of working parents feel fatigued and exhausted due to trouble managing their workload, lack of work-life balance, working longer days, or never being able to truly disconnect from work … The result is a chronic cycle of fatigue, an inability to see a way forward, and parents constantly at risk of burning out.”

The mental load is increasingly heavy for most of us, but it’s exponentially worse for parents who are also worried about keeping a roof over their family’s heads or having enough food for their children. And as inequality widens and housing becomes less and less affordable, these are challenges that more and more parents are grappling with. 

Author Gina Denny viscerally captures the stress of poverty in her story, “When We Slid Into Poverty, I Became a Bad Mom.” What is a “bad mom,” exactly? Well, we all seem to have our own strong opinions on this matter, but in Gina’s case, it was about simply not having the mental bandwidth to focus on her children’s needs, which included frequently snapping at them because her patience was in short supply. 

The grand irony of the story is that Gina was spending most of her waking hours trying to maintain some semblance of stability for her children, but between the constant worry, the endless bureaucratic crap that comes with applying for government programs, the frantic job applications, and the juggling act required to keep the lights on, she wasn’t able to pay all that much attention to said children.

It’s the children and parents in the most dire straits  —  the ones essentially forsaken by the rest of society  —  that are subject to the harshest judgment. They are the “most badly behaved” kids, the “most neglectful” parents. A recent study from the National Institute of Mental Health confirms other findings that “Black, Hispanic, and students whose parent’s incomes are below the federal poverty threshold are disciplined [in school] more often and severely than their white peers or those with higher socioeconomic status.”

I have never lived in poverty, but when our family has gone through times of crisis, I have found myself crippled by the mental load  —  barely able to function, let alone parent.  Even just the effect of the never-ending to-dos and logistical tangles that comprise modern daily life for financially stable families can sap most of the energy I wish I had to nurture my children and encourage their growth. 

What is everyone going to eat for dinner, and how are we going to get two kids to different places at the same time, who is going to watch them next Thursday, and when can I respond to three dozen texts from the four different text chains that were blowing up my phone during work, and do we have batteries for our flashlights in case the power goes out during the ice storm that’s forecasted for the weekend, and where are all our flashlights anyway, and why do I have to fill out even more paperwork for that homeowner insurance claim they seem intent on denying us, and what is this sticky stuff all over the bathroom sink, and… shall I go on?

In other words, raising children in this day and age takes such a heavy mental toll, that it leaves little time and space for actually parenting.

Like most parents, I’m doing my best. Like most parents, I’m doing my best while feeling perpetually exhausted and overwhelmed. Like most parents, I’m doing my best in a culture that seems intent on destroying my children’s mental, emotional, and physical health.

We are all guilty of judging other people’s parenting styles and their children’s behavior, but it seems that these days, we are not only quicker to judge, but we judge more harshly and with less context. We hold up “bad kids,” and their “bad parents” as the reason we no longer want children at weddings and other social gatherings; really, we don’t want them integrated into our public lives much at all, unless they stay quiet and sit still. 

Mostly we shut them away in cars and after-school activities. If they are not ours, we are quite adamant that we bear no responsibility whatsoever for helping to raise them. That responsibility sits on the shoulders of parents alone  —  parents who are, even on their best days, mostly just muddling through.

I was praised plenty for being a “good kid,” but I’ve gotten very little praise for being a “good parent.” The rules are fuzzy, at best. 

Recently, my daughter came close to losing it while we were driving home from a basketball game that didn’t go so well. My parents were in the car, and I felt the pressure to quiet her down. But because I’ve honestly never figured out how to quiet her down, I just listened instead. I refrained from the temptation to offer platitudes about effort and teamwork.

Her frustrations about a rough game spiraled into frustrations about mean kids in school, which spiraled into frustrations about one mean kid in particular who seemed to be the ringleader and who was saying such nasty things that I told my daughter I wouldn’t mind punching this kid in the face. Was that the right thing to say? Probably not, but it’s honestly how I felt in that moment, and the spontaneous, almost involuntary, giggle it coaxed from my daughter seemed to lure off the ledge.

My father later brought up her tirade in the car, and I steeled myself for the litany of all the things I should have done differently, all the boundaries I should have drawn and consequences I should have enforced, and lessons I should have imparted that didn’t involve punching a 12-year-old girl in the face. But instead, he told me was impressed by how I handled the situation. I thought, “Wow.” I can probably count on two hands the number of times I’ve been praised by anyone for being a good parent. Meanwhile, I don’t have enough fingers for the number of times I’ve been judged, criticized, or left hung out to dry.

Before any of us make the next flippant comment about “bad parents” or “bad kids,” let’s pause to consider what we mean, what context we may be missing, and what we can do to help.

RELATED: Call Me A Bad Mom: My Parenting Looks Different Because It Is

Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.

This article was originally published at Substack. Reprinted with permission from the author.