Sometimes when we start talking about family patterns of dysfunction, people start getting nervous. They’re afraid to bad mouth their parents, even in private, even to a single person bound to confidentially legally and ethically. They make excuses, they hem and haw, they rush to assure me, “But they tried their best” or “I’m not perfect either.”
No, of course you’re not perfect. Who is? And I’m sure they tried their best because most people do but that doesn’t meant that their best was good enough for you and you are allowed to acknowledge that. Let me say this slowly and clearly — YOU ARE ALLOWED TO BE CRITICAL OF YOUR PARENTS. It’s not bad mouthing someone to talk critically about them. There is a difference between negative complaining and critically processing even though there might be superficial overlap. The difference is (because the words might be the same) if you are doing it to try to get someone on your “side” or if you’re doing it because you’re trying to make sense of your experience.
I say this as a mother to an adult child — adult children are allowed to be critical of their parents. I hereby, as a stand in for all parents of adult children, confer permission! It’s a necessary part of declaring your own identity as a person and as a parent. There is nothing mean spirited or out of line for a child to say to themselves or out loud to other people, “I do not like this and I will do it a different way.” It’s not mean to be critical of your parents. It’s not disrespectful. It’s not a betrayal. It’s how progress works.
Imagine if all of the scientists were like, “Oh I can’t put a human being on the moon. What would my parents say? They might think I didn’t appreciate my earth bound life with them.”
If your parents would punish you for doing things differently, if they would turn around and bad mouth you or disinvite you to Thanksgiving, then that right there is a great big indicator that your family is all kinds of messed up. Again, children are supposed to grow up and out of the family of origin. They are supposed to make their own lives and build their own families and do what they think is right, not live to please their parents. If your parent is not speaking to you or is speaking poorly about you because you’re making different parenting choices, that’s not OK. Your parent is allowed to have feelings about you doing things differently but it’s out of line if they make you responsible for their feelings about it.
It’s not your job to make your parents feel better about their parenting choices that you feel were mistakes. If they get defensive because you, for example, decide not to spank your kids the way that you were spanked, that’s on them. They can go process that with their friends or partners or a nice therapist but you do not have to make them feel better for doing things in a way that you didn’t like. You don’t have to apologize for doing things differently, you don’t have to explain (unless you want to), and you don’t have to defend your choices.
Of course you’re going to do things differently and to do that, you’re going to have to be critical. Because you, my friend, are headed to the moon.