Good Parenting, Against the Grain

In past articles from this column, I’ve given you some snippets of information about my childhood, so you might already know that inexcusable things happened in the home where I grew up. What you might not know is that I blamed my father for just about all of them. Not just a horrible parent, my dad was a horrible person, I had always thought. He didn’t deserve a relationship with me, I had thought—and I pointed to family stories as proof.

For a time, I met with a professional counselor to talk about the things my dad had said and done while I was growing up. I’d tell him the kind of stories that nobody likes to hear, and then I’d wait for clinical advice on how I could get over them and heal up for good. During one such conversation, though, my counselor did something unexpected. Smack in the middle of some classic, it’s-all-his-fault Dad Stories, he stopped me in my tracks with a single question. “Dan,” he asked, “what’s something good about your dad?”

If I had known ahead of time that our conversation would end up there, I probably wouldn’t have met my counselor over lunch that day. His seven-word question flipped my brain around and turned me into a blubbering heap, right there in the middle of a restaurant. With an entire dining room watching, I sat there and cried like a baby. The truth is, I hadn’t ever linked my father with the concept of goodness. Blameworthy, yes. Condemnable, yes. Abusive, yes. Guilty, you bet. But good? The idea went against the grain of everything I had always felt toward the man.

And yet, a single question was all it took to flood me with something more—something good. Out of nowhere, my mind’s eye saw snapshots from the past, all lined up and flashing like an old slideshow. I saw pictures of my dad’s work ethic and moments when he had helped people around our town in South Carolina. I recalled times when I had glimpsed a softness in him, and I remembered some games he’d played with me when I was a boy. Frame after frame, the pictures moved through my mind, and with each new memory, I mopped my eyes with another paper napkin. The next time I got the chance to be around my dad, I was amazed at how differently I felt about him. After my little breakthrough in the restaurant, the edgy, uptight anxiety I’d had toward my father was replaced with a new gentleness, a genuine interest. For the first time ever, I wanted to know my dad and to know about him. For the first time ever, the stuff of relationships was flowing.

I asked my dad about his childhood that day. In response, he talked about family, about chores, about school, about growing up during the Great Depression. One story in particular stood out: when he was very young, my father’s mother tethered him to a bedpost so she could go work out in the fields. It was odd and sad, to think that the man I had judged so critically had once been a toddler on a rope tether. He had grown up, I realized, with his own set of hurdles and horrors. He had made mistakes—yes, some very big ones—but he had done the best he could.

Faced with the life he led, I was amazed that my father had turned out as well as he had. Under the circumstances, I wouldn’t have done any better. With all his faults and all his hurtful choices, he was still so much more than what he could have been. To me, that achievement alone was worthy of gratitude. As I told him that day, “Considering what you grew up with, you turned out to be a pretty good dad.” Pretty good, yes.