No, Not All Parents Deserve Forgiveness
We need to talk about adult supremacy and toxic parenting culture, because not all parenting decisions warrant forgiveness.
Content Warning: I discuss some first-hand experiences of child abuse: emotional abuse, physical violence, day-to-day life with an extremely unstable parent, and death threats against a child which may disturb or trigger some readers. Reader discretion is advised.
I was spurred to write this when this tweet by Keke Palmer went viral — as did several responses to it:
“I don’t know who needs to hear this, but forgive your parents.”
Okay, there’s much to unpack in that statement.
What are you forgiving your parents for?
Moreover, are their actions worthy of forgiveness?
I think that everyone carries some degree of resent for their parents with respect to the attitudes and social mores they instilled in you growing up, whether it was the little things like not getting to watch the same TV shows or eat the same foods as your classmates or taking more serious control of your life, like not allowing you to date at all in your teens.
People hold grudges and choose whether or not to forgive their parents if they were discouraged from a major life decision like which college major to take up or career choices, or other common parenting decisions. For instance, you may resent one of your parents for taking a better-paying job and subsequently uprooting the entire family when you were in second grade since it’s a choice you had no say in and irrevocably changed your life? Sure, you’ll forgive them for it once you have to pay bills on your own and discover the harsh realities of capitalism, and the serfdom that Americans call employment.
After all, such a choice is interwoven in your overall family dynamics and your very formative years. Where and how you were raised has a profound effect on children well into adulthood, and it can have beneficial or deleterious effects on your self-esteem long after you’ve grown up and even gotten therapy. But let’s say that one or both of your parents spends your entire childhood constantly putting you down and making you feel stupid, if not outright telling you that you are.
After you get home from the shithole trauma factory that Americans call schools, you have no idea if your mother is going to act like one of those saccharine 1980s sitcom moms or if the contents of your dresser will be on the front lawn while she screams about wanting to kill herself. You clamber for some kind of respite, like an unrealistically happy TV show or a computer game where you get to play the hero and receive the respect you lack in real life, yet it seems like your parents magically have no interest in your life all while constantly breathing down your neck. The littlest things cause the biggest of arguments and screaming matches, then one day you find yourself hearing “Tell me what you did with the towel, or I will kill you. I will put my hands around your neck and kill you.” as someone twice your size towers over you and has you cornered, only this time there’s no save and restore menu to escape the danger like in Sierra games. But the phone rings and you silently thank the caller for making her “go back to normal”, and lock yourself in your room and brace the door with a chair as shown in Quest For Glory, just in case.
Hi, my name is Rachel. I am a child abuse survivor with type C post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). That entire last paragraph was just a smattering of things that happened to me. No, I don’t forgive my mother who’s been dead just about twenty years at the time of writing.
So, I wrote a rebuttal thread.
Feel free to read it or skip it, because I’m going to hammer the same points home again: forgiveness is up to the child. No one else. Forgiveness must be earned, and parents who mistreated their children and demand forgiveness or to be given a pass will owe them restorative justice and genuine efforts to make amends, just like any other interpersonal relationship would merit. You do not get a fucking medal just for providing for your children’s material support, and claiming that you didn’t abuse them just because shelter was stable and you kept them fed (all while going on about how that child’s birth was SO difficult and they made life so, SO hard for you).
Yet if you make this statement, people go on about how you owe your parents forgiveness and care just because they put you here. Let me say it again one more time: if you were abused and/or neglected, YOU DON’T HAVE TO FORGIVE THEM. You can if you want to! But given that child abuse survivors are more likely to be left with lifelong health problems like personality disorders, substance abuse, and are more apt to fall in and out of poverty than their contemporaries who didn’t have what clinical social workers call “adverse childhood experiences”, that’s a tall order to forgive someone for.
We somehow live in this duality where parents are not supported in terms of our work culture and educational systems, yet they’re always given the benefit of the doubt over their children. Therein lies some pernicious twisted roots that have intertwined: American culture reveres abusers, and scorns victims. There is a certain shame in surviving child abuse that people who haven’t suffered it simply don’t understand, particularly since we spend our lives being gaslit into believing that our parents love us and will always know better and do the right thing, and that if we’re yelled at or hit then we were being insufferable brats who didn’t get that toy we wanted or did something else that was wrong. So we’re told to shut up and stop blaming our parents for our problems in adulthood.
American society flat out enables abusers.
The Tenets of Toxic American Parenting
Parenting culture here is extremely toxic and transcends all of the cultures and creeds within these stolen lands. I’m not just saying that, either: the United States literally has one of the worst, if not THE WORST, records on children who die or become incapacitated for life due to child abuse, with at least 4–7 children dead per year.
- To treat your children as possessions
- Adult supremacy, or that parents, teachers, and other adult authority figures are always correct and children are not to be trusted
- To constantly view and treat one’s children as a burden and inconvenience
- To engage in cruelty towards your children simply because “life’s not fair” or “it’s a hard world”
- Taking your own trauma out on your children (this seems to be a major one with Millennials raised by Boomers in my experience.)
All of these tenets are particularly salient in America but the fact that children are treated like possessions to manipulate is one of the biggest ones. For many people, it’s just another box to check in the Life Script and a possession to amass in the last vestiges of the fading capitalist illusion we were sold.
Look, I’m not saying that child abuse would magically disappear if we lived in a socialist utopia. But when current economic reality virtually mandates this teenagers having this degree of dependence on their parents well after reaching majority age (such as FAFSA forms, which is why we should have free college like a real country), how much your parentage affects your future income and wealth, and how many people stay with abusive partners out of lacking many financial choices? It certainly plays a part, especially given that “18 and out” is not an option for most young people anymore. Child abuse survivors need their own seat at the table as far as the fight for economic justice goes.
But to be clear, these tenets are not strictly related to American culture. You’ll find abusive parents and haunted child abuse survivors anywhere on the globe, and from any walk of life. But I specifically pinpoint these as American because I have noticed an enormous difference in attitudes towards children and parenting in my travels, watching foreign media, and talking to people from different countries about day-to-day life and family culture.
Adult supremacy is also a major part of why our culture tends to crap on victims while constantly seeking defenses for abusers. Vyvian Raoul writes of how children are uniquely disenfranchised. Well, I didn’t agree with Marianne Williamson on everything and thought her take on Claudia Conway needing to forgive her mother was complete trash, but one thing she was completely right about is that there should be a federal department dedicated to children’s needs.
The founder of Latinx Parenting pointed out how overly white parenting resources skew, and the link between adult supremacy and white supremacy. Adult supremacy has nasty, insidious settler-colonialist roots that are upheld centuries later.
Adult supremacy was a huge part of my upbringing, and if you want to know why these assholes keep blaming and infantilizing Millennials for EVERYTHING wrong with the world and how we’re just not buying enough shit or producing enough babies for these ghouls? Ding ding ding! Adult supremacy is at the root! Even though we’re in our late thirties and early forties now! But that’s how deeply-ingrained these toxic tenets are in our society.
Making Room for Grief
The immense trauma that can come from the unforgivable acts some of our parents committed can color our worldview decades later. We can’t begin to heal until we actually realize we’ve been abused, which is hard in this society for the reasons I outlined. But when the healing begins and we vow not to take our own trauma out on the children in our lives, one of the hardest parts that comes next is grieving.
For many child abuse survivors, we carry unshed tears for decades.
Grieving means we have to acknowledge our childhoods were stolen from us. For those who choose to forgive their parents, it can be part of the grieving process. If you’re like me and you do not, it’s more about coming to terms with what was taken from you.
Because the sheer magnitude of a lifetime of gaslighting, words and imagery from the media that we regularly see and routinely minimize our pain, and cultural figureheads like Palmer trying to tell us we owe abusive and/or absentee parents forgiveness? It’s indescribably agonizing.
It’s as though your entire body is a fault line, then one crack after another forms over time. It’s not noticeable immediately, but it’s like Cuomo’s MTA: some days, it runs just fine but over time, an innumerable amount of tracks in disrepair suddenly lead to this full-on collapse. Seeing a parent yell at their child in public? Crack. A sudden reminder of your past that makes you feel small, helpless, and stuck waiting it out once again? Crack. A tweet where a parent complains about their kid just exaggerates everything? CRACK. Now the fault line is torn asunder, and as a person you completely fucking break down. You find yourself finally letting of those unshed tears for what your life should have been, and have to ask yourself if you’re now living the life you hoped you’d be living at that nebulous point in the future.
It’s healthy and moreover, important and necessary, to grieve your lost childhood just like you would a loved one. But for so many survivors, we may never truly stop grieving, even if we made a point to do so. There will be times when it just comes up, especially in the COVID era where we had to grieve what we just lost and lacking control over the situation we’re in can be extremely triggering to survivors. It comes in and out of remission like cancer: you’re going to carry it your whole life, even if most days you’re able to joyfully embrace life and live in the moment. There’s always going to be some trigger for that grief.
And that’s why we don’t owe abusive parents forgiveness, because let me tell you firsthand that a lifetime of grief is mentally and physically exhausting. The trauma inflicted upon me was not validated until several years after it happened; had we not lived in such a toxic society where I was treated like this inconvenient rag doll subject to adult supremacy, maybe I would’ve been more “normal”. The mental and physical health issues decades of trauma gifted me also made a “late bloomer”.
It’s never your place to tell a child abuse survivor to forgive their parents/guardians, and this blanket statement based on adult supremacy only serves to keep the abused silent and abusers on a pedestal.