Damon Young wonders if we should judge parents by how well their kids turn out.
As any NFL fan (and most New Yorkers) undoubtedly know, there’s an annual ritual that occurs somewhere between the 3rd and 8th weeks of the NFL season each year. The New York Giants will be struggling, a few anonymous sources from the team will leak quotes to the media about how much the entire team hates head coach Tom Coughlin, and a few prominent beat writers and reporters will pen articles about how the team has tired of Coughlin’s rigid ways and that it’s time to make a change.¹
Seriously, if you were to look up the term “hot seat” in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of a red-faced and exasperated Coughlin in the middle of the same exaggerated head shake/eye roll combo an assistant principal at a high school would make after hearing that the gym locker room toilets were clogged again.
He’s never won (and never will win) coach of the year. Whenever Sports Illustrated or ESPN.com does one of those anonymous player surveys, he’s always the choice as “the coach I’d least like to play for.” He’s not regarded as an evil genius like Bill Belichick, a guru like Jon Gruden, a master motivator/player’s coach like Mike Tomlin or Pete Carroll, or even an “old guy whose best days are behind him but still has something in the tank”like (the extremely overrated) Mike Shanahan. He is actually a stereotypically bad assistant principal — a micro-manager whose obsession with mind-numbing routine and authoritarianism ends up undermining the power he already has².
But, as of now, Coughlin is the head coach of two Super Bowl champions, a feat matched by few others. A man many wouldn’t consider a great (or even good) NFL coach has twice bested the man thought of as the best football coach of his generation.
Today, the Coughlin narrative is that he’s an underappreciated motivator and technician. The end results (two championships) have justified any means, and 50 years from now, no one will remember that he came within a hair of getting fired every year. All they’ll see is “Tom Coughlin = two-time Super Bowl champion” and they’ll assume that he was a great coach.
Now, there’s an obvious parallel between coaching and parenting (and teaching, even), and I brought up Tom Coughlin’s career because it ties directly into a question I’ve always had about parenting.
What exactly makes a “good” or “great” parent?
This seems like it should be an easy question to answer. A good parent is a selfless individual who loves their children unconditionally, stops at nothing to provide for and protect them, teaches them whatever needs taught, and models good behavior.
But, if the ultimate goal of a parent is to make sure their offspring are productive, capable, and well-adjusted members of society, what’s to make of “good” parents who were, to put it bluntly, failures?
How do you gauge the parental merits of loving, selfless, and upstanding individuals who’ve raised kids who grew up to be liars, deadbeats, thieves, rapists, murders, and Laker fans? Would you consider a parent “good” if they were successful and happy and well-adjusted, but their children were the exact opposite?
Perhaps, like a “good” coach who just wasn’t able to find a way to motivate his team, maybe a good parent with shitty offspring has all the proper parental tools but just didn’t apply them properly…making them bad at being a parent
On the flipside, what do you make of people who’ve managed to succeed in spite of what looked to be lackluster and/or deficient parenting? The man who’s managed to become a renowned surgeon despite his overbearing and still hard to please alcoholic father? The woman who never received a single compliment from her ruthless and manipulative mother but ended up being a caring, successful, and well-adjusted lawyer and mom herself? The kid from the projects who, after seeing how heroin tore apart his family, got a PhD. in neuroscience to study addiction and help make sure what happened to his family doesn’t happen to any others?
On the surface, no one would say that any of these people had good parents, but you can’t deny the fact that their relationships with their parents helped motivate and inspire them to become who they are today. Again, if parental merits depend on the offspring you send out into the world, the “sh*tty” parents definitely succeeded. Perhaps these parents, bad as they may have seemed, were only doing what they thought it took to ensure their children’s success as adults.
And, just as you probably won’t hear any Giants complain about Coughlin’s rigidity or out-of-touchness today, you’re probably not going to hear any of the people from the last paragraph complain too much about how they were raised.
If the Giants don’t make the playoffs this year, Coughlin gets fired. Now, though, each of his negative characteristics become pluses through euphemism. (i.e.: “he’s a micro-manager” turns into “he’s steadfastly committed to excellence”)
If these people don’t turn out successful, the drunk dad is an asshole, the manipulative mom is a bitch, and the kid with the addicts in his family just had too much on his plate to overcome. If successful, though, the asshole dad becomes “a guy who believed in tough love,” the bitchy mom is just a “perfectionist who wanted the best for me,” and the kids from the projects reflects on all the sacrifices his people made to help him make it.
I guess I’m trying to say that whether a person is a good parent or not is completely arbitrary, completely variable, and completely dependent on the quality of kid they produce. But, to be honest, I don’t even really believe that. A part of me still thinks that, despite what I’ve tried to prove today, good parenting is like pornography — you can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it.
Hmm. I forget which Gladwell book it was (actually, it might have been Outliers), but I remember a passage in it that basically stated that the best parenting is done before a kid is even born. The genes you pass on to him and the financial situation he’s born in do waaaaay more to help (or hurt) him succeed than anything you can do as a parent.
If this is true, perhaps coaching and parenting are more intertwined than I thought. As any Giants fan will surely tell you today, “good coach” is just another way of saying “he was lucky enough to have some good ass players.”
¹There’s an article at Slate.com that goes much more in-depth on this “ritual.” I remember reading it there, and I know it’s somewhere in here, but I couldn’t find it yesterday.
²No shots at any assistant principals reading this
photo: ted kerwin / flickr, deadspin