Mother and Son – Good Parenting, Bad Parenting, Emotional Abuse


I went to Kirstenbosch the other day.  It’s a gorgeous huge botanical garden, set at the foot of the mountain range that runs through Cape Town.  It was warm, sunny and peaceful and it felt like there was plenty of love around – in the beauty and the people.   There were a lot of families picnicking, children playing in streams, running around on the grass, adults playing with their kids or lounging about on blankets.

The most adorable group of tiny, furry ducklings and two very protective parent ducks made their way onto the scene.  It was just perfect.   Those ducklings were so incredibly fragile, but very secure in their world, it was divine to see.  I guess they had really good parenting!  But their fragility reminded me of what so many people are like inside, no matter how old they are.  They’re still vulnerable, still needing protection, easily hurt, not that good at taking care of themselves.  You can’t always see it, because they so often have a big bravado thing going on but if you could strip it away you’d see the truth of them.

This morning I saw what I thought was the kind of parenting that leads to that vulnerability in adulthood.   I was in a café sitting quite close to a mother and son and her parents.  The mother, in her mid-30’s, was a control freak and loaded with quite a dark anger, which got directed pretty remorselessly at her son, who looked about 7 years old.  She cornered him every time he moved.  It was terribly painful to watch.  Third degree emotional abuse I’d call it.  She had an awful lot of permissive entitlement to absolutely crush her child.

He was really just restless, he wasn’t making a big fuss.  But the more she abused him the less she could control him.  Go figure.  Smart kid.   He’d already learned that the best way to get her attention was to act out.  Then he got her full focus.  Of course he didn’t know there was an alternative, didn’t know some mothers just love their sons for being who they are, and don’t need to control them, to crush their spirits.

My heart ached for that boy.  I’ve heard it said that we don’t hurt for other people; their situation reminds us of our own unresolved hurt and so we’re really feeling for ourselves.  Maybe it was both.  I certainly felt outraged and wanted to say something to her about what she was doing, how she was forcing her child to behave neurotically and destroying his chances of growing up with a clear heart and an untwisted mind.  But I couldn’t imagine it would do any good, and I thought maybe she’d get enraged, then take that out on her kid later.

Now I kind of wish I had written a note and somehow slipped it in her bag or something.  You’re abusing your child.  Please listen to and look at yourself and get help. It’s hard for me to feel empathy for people who are such rank bullies, especially when their targets are their children.  I want to say pick on someone your own size. But maybe, right at the core of her, she’s as fragile as those baby ducklings.  

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2 thoughts on “Mother and Son – Good Parenting, Bad Parenting, Emotional Abuse

  1. i think you are right about those things which take us back! But sometimes we can be empathetic when we haven’t even been there ourselves. Praying for healing and loving your articles!

  2. You paint a beautiful picture of Kirstenbosch, against a stark contrast with your morning. I’ve got lots to say about such parenting styles and how painful they are, not only to experience as a child but also to watch as a passer-by.

    Putting that aside, you really are a natural at putting a ‘head and a tail’ on a story. It’s like you naturally speak the way great stories are told. Very good! I wonder if this is something you’ve learned, or something that is just a part of your natural talent.

    I wonder which way this story would go, with the hurt child, or the fragile mother?

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