Sunday, November 6, 2011

When bad parenting comes back to bite you in the ass

PREFACE: This is a far cry from things that are spooktacular and cutesy-shaped lunch meat but this post, in general, is still just a reflection of what is bouncing around in my head.

The other day I saw the story about Hillary Adams, the 23-year old woman who recently posted a video on the internet, taken 7 years ago, showing her father, a county judge in Texas, brutally beating her with a belt. If you have not seen it, you can find it here:, but be warned that it is graphic and disturbing, to say the least. In the way that random, personal information broadcast on the internet sometimes does, it went viral within a few days and garnered much more attention than this young woman ever dreamed it would. I stumbled upon the story on my facebook news feed after she appeared on the Today Show talking with Matt Lauer. I watched the original YouTube video, as well as the Today Show interview. Anything that I have to say about here is, of course, only an expression of my opinion and not any kind of profound judgment or pronouncement about Ms. Adams or her family or her actions. And, by the way, just so I don’t leave you hanging, I totally support what she did and my heart goes out to her and her family. I admire her strength and courage and I also sympathize with the excruciating pain that these events must have caused her and will, most likely, continue to cause her for some time to come.

But first I am reminded of another horror story about poor parental decision-making that I read about recently. This story is about an 11-year old boy who was abandoned by his father several months back. The father, Steven Cross, facing foreclosure on their Lakeville, MN home left the son one night last summer and drove his van to California, leaving a note with the boy instructing him to ride his bike over to a neighbor’s house and another note addressed to the neighbors giving them his permission to care for the child in his absence. The father was eventually tracked down, arrested and brought back to Minnesota to face child neglect charges. In the article I read most recently about this family the dad expresses genuine dismay over the public and legal reaction to his decision to ditch his son. He appears to maintain the belief that leaving his son in the care of the neighbor family was clearly a more responsible decision than sticking around and allowing his financial troubles to affect the child. Although virtually everything about this story disturbs me, this is the part that I find the most difficult to comprehend; how can this man, father to a child with whom he has spent the last 11 years, presumably loving and caring for, not understand the profound wrongness of abandoning his child and disappearing in the middle of the night, assuming that a neighbor will seamlessly take over his parenting responsibilities and all will be well? How can he fail to see the damage he is doing to his child? How does he miss that?

In the case of Hillary Adams, her father has made statements to the fact that the abuse on the video looks worse than it is. He appears to believe he has done nothing wrong. How can that be? Who can fail to recognize the obvious physical and emotional damage that he inflicts on his daughter in just a few seconds of the beating shown in the video?

The parent/child relationship is a unique dynamic. Initially within the relationship, the parent is in a position of absolute power; the child is completely dependent on his or her parent. As the child grows and becomes more independent, more developed, the relationship also evolves into one where the child assumes more power over his or her life, and, ideally, the parent begins to relinquish control over the child who can now share in the responsibility of living. Ultimately, when the child becomes an adult, the two adults, while still parent and child, have the potential to be equals. The power dynamic essentially evens out over time. But anyone who has had a relationship of any sort with their parents knows that this is not necessarily accurate. Even at age 43, my mother, unwittingly, I suppose, maintains an immense amount of power over me. She can swing my mood from cheerful to hateful faster than you can spell the word dysfunctional. Or she can make me feel invincible with just the smallest nod of approval. And although I struggle against it, am hyper-aware of it and take care to analyze the crap out of it at every turn, I know that it is also inevitable that she will always have the ability to influence my emotional state simply because that power dynamic existed in our relationship so pervasively from day one and it was imprinted on my brain and my emotional development throughout my childhood.

Although I haven’t had time or the motivation to do exhaustive research on the subject, I am fairly certain it’s not inaccurate to say that child abuse and neglect not only traumatizes a child, having very real physical and emotional affects, but also has the potential to alter a child’s brain development. When you are 16 and your father comes into your bedroom and beats you mercilessly with a belt despite your cries and your obvious pain, your brain is directly affected, changed and forced to grow and adapt in ways that would otherwise not occur were it not for the abuse. Or when you are 11 and you awake in the safety of your own home only to find that your one known parent who supposedly loves you more than any other individual in the world has deserted you, your brain suffers a type of injury which can leave scars that physically change the course of your neural development irrevocably. How can a parent not be aware of their profound influence over the growth of their child? How is that overlooked?

One of the reasons that these stories stick with me, and particularly stick out in my mind at this moment is because I spend a great deal of time and energy every day worrying about my parenting abilities and whether or not I am doing things “the right way” or even “a good enough way.” It consumes me some days, and I recognize that this is not necessarily a good thing. A very sweet friend of mine made a remark the other day that she sucked at being a stay-at-home parent, which said to me that she, too, experiences similar feelings of self-doubt and concern that her parenting is sub-par. Which makes me think that these feelings of incompetence, more pronounced in some, but still present in most parents, is actually normal, fairly universal and possibly even an indication that we are being diligent, thoughtful and careful in our daily task of raising our children. And that’s good. It’s really good. The abusive parent who firmly believes he has done nothing harmful to his child would do well to question his actions, really spend some time obsessing over whether or not he has done the best job possible for the welfare of his child. And should he eventually consider the possibility that no, in fact, he has not done a good job and has, instead, fucked up royally, he should feel no shame in admitting that and finding some way to ask for help. I won’t exclude the possibility of forgiveness or redemption. But a parent should have to work really hard for that.

Hillary Adams’ father claimed in an interview that he believes he has done nothing wrong other than discipline his child for stealing (the video-taped beating was punishment for illegally downloading material from the internet). His choice of language confuses me but I’m not sure it’s relevant to dissect his grammar – OK, humor me – if he has done nothing wrong other than discipline his child, doesn’t that statement allow for the possibility that disciplining his child falls under the heading of “doing something wrong?” Whatever, I’m pretty sure he believes he is blameless. I am no authority to say what the legal consequences should be for this man or for the father who abandoned his child. But I do feel pretty strongly that whatever consequences there are within the relationship between parent and child following abuse and neglect, they are most likely warranted. Although Ms. Adams’ father may not face criminal charges, he has left his job and left his hometown and is probably not really enjoying all the attention he is getting as an internet star/child abuser. Is that fair to him?

I guess this is my essential point here; in my opinion, who cares what is fair to him? He forfeits his daughter’s consideration when he takes a belt out and whips her repeatedly. He abuses his child, abuses his position of power, physically harms his daughter and alters the course of her development. When Ms. Adams made him aware of the video, does he take any responsibility for his actions? No. Steven Cross says he would still like to see his son (who he abandoned) and seems mystified by the court’s decision to deny him visitation. For now, it seems he has pretty much trashed his relationship with his child. Do I feel bad for him? No.

As good, conscientious parents, we know we have an obligation to do right by our children. Sometimes, life seems to conspire against our desire to be good to our kids. We get angry, we yell, we take away privileges. We make our kids cry. And we worry like hell that we are harming them, that we are doing such a horrible job of parenting that our kids will have psychological scars for life. But then stories of real child abuse remind us what psychological scars really are. One of the many professionals with whom I have crossed paths in my own parenting journey once said (of parents relative to their children) “we are bigger, stronger, wiser and kind.” In the end, this is what we owe our children, our best ability to treat them with kindness, which includes apologizing when we are wrong and taking responsibility for our actions. If we can’t even do that much, then I’m not sure our kids owe us anything either.


  1. Amen, Christen. I too was horrified by those two particular stories when I saw them on tv this week. Had to turn my head away and plug my ears when they played the YouTube video. We've talked, you know I've had my doubts about some of the things I've done as a parent, but I so agree that we should acknowledge and apologize for our mistakes. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us on this!

  2. My mom told me once, as I was crying over whether I was good enough for my little girl (who, it's necessary to say, is not biologically mine but borrowed via a very complicated situation), that merely by the fact that I was agonizing over whether I was doing right by her, proved to her that I was, just because I cared enough to agonize over it, to try my best, to question myself. I believe what she told me. We're not bad parents because we make mistakes, we're *good* parents because we learn from them, and do better by our kids in the future. Seeing abuse, any abuse, just destroys me emotionally knowing what kids go through... even the ones in my life. I just don't understand how you can treat a smaller, weaker person like that. Who loves you. Who depends on you. Makes me sick.

    Your words are well written, thanks for sharing.

  3. It is interesting that you say nothing of the mother's role in this debacle. And it is also interesting that she stands to gain the most from this airing. And before the cries of "Abused woman!" are raised to defend her, just check out the video. She didn't look too helpless.

    This clearly is a dysfunctional family and it does everybody a disservice to only put the blame at one of the participant's feet. The manipulation continues but only now it is in the public arena.

    And by all means, everybody should be careful that their kids aren't taping them should they lose their temper. Wouldn't want that being played on YouTube, would you?

  4. Hillary Adams and Hallie Adams are not telling the whole truth. However, the truth will come out. They are simply trying to keep their "Gravy Train" on track, nothing else. They are so shameless.

    Stay tuned.

  5. To the anonymous commenter of 9:14am, it appears to me that the mother has owned up to her role and attended to her relationship with her daughter. I am not commenting on anyone's motivation here. You are correct, I am focusing only on the father's role, who, I think it's fairly clear, is guilty of abusing his child. Personally, I have a clear conscience about anything my child could possibly video tape & publicize, should she feel a need to. But she wouldn't because she trusts me.

  6. To the anonymous commenter of 10:48, whatever the mysterious "truth" is to which you refer, I really don't care. Did the father beat his child with a belt? Pretty sure that's a fact. That's all I'm commenting on, nothing else. I'm just a woman expressing her opinion. Also, can't help but point out, William Adams can also fall under the category of "shameless."

  7. I enjoyed your article and I'm glad you've been able to think critically about child abuse and its definition. Thanks for your support and I hope everything will be resolved alright.

  8. Christen, I am the anonymous poster from 9:14 a.m. From your profile I am deducing that you have one child and that child is young. I am not sure how experienced you are in dealing with teenagers and the attitudes that sometimes accompany them. It can be very difficult and frustrating. (Think two year old's with bigger bodies and a greatly expanded vocabulary with obstinance to match.)

    I have six children and only one of them has given me a problem as a teenager. For that I can say, "Thank goodness."

    He lied. He was selfish. He stole. He had a chip on his shoulder the size of Idaho. He always claimed to be a victim when it was he, himself, who started the problem by lying or stealing.

    And I love this kid with all my heart.

    But I will admit to losing it with him. No belt or corporal punishment but with word fights that I would never want to be seen on YouTube. As a parent I felt so ashamed that I lost it and couldn't find a way of dealing with his behavior. He literally put the reputation of himself and his family on the line and couldn't see the problem with doing so. He didn't care that he was going to not only sink his boat but the boat of his brothers and parents. He only could give excuses, lies, and claims of victimhood.

    We are working through this and are almost to the other side but it has been a difficult road. So when you cast judgment on a parent for losing it, it may be that you are not hearing the whole story. Yes, I agree that the whole belt thing is horrifying but, given the experiences that I had with my one son, I can see how a teenager is completely capable of setting up one's parent to lose it and catch it on tape. It saddens me to type those words because 10 years ago I never would have believed it. As I said to my husband, "I never thought I could get this angry in my life."

    But at least I cared enough to get angry. If I didn't care I would let him lie, and cheat, and steal or toss his butt out the door. But as a mother, I can't do that. I will fight for him. I guess the key is finding a way to do it without fighting with him.

    I hope you don't have to walk in these shoes, Christen. But at least have empathy for parents who are doing their best with difficult teenagers.