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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Zunter

"You Get What You Raise."

I recently read an article about children who are estranged from their parents written by an adult who is still estranged from their own parents.

In this article, it was heavily implied that if there is any sort of estrangement between a child and their parent(s) which carries through into adulthood, it is because there must have been something that either one or both parents did to cause the estrangement.

Essentially, the article was expressing that if something goes wrong in a parent/child relationship it’s most likely the fault of one or both parents.

In the comments to this article, one woman simply responded, “You get what you raise.”


This comment caused me to take a good, solid pause and really think about this issue as it relates to my own experiences.

My own mother-in-law is a prime example of how complex this subject can be.

I know her to be a kind and empathetic person who raised three children — two boys and a daughter. From what I can tell, my mother-in-law gave her children love, taught them manners, talked to them, listened to them, and did all she could for them as a parent alongside my father-in-law.

My mother-in-law’s daughter — by all accounts — was a sweet and friendly child growing up until she reached her teenage years. After that point, something happened to her — no one exactly knows what — but she became angry, depressed, and not so nice anymore.

Typical teen behavior, one might say. Depression and/or mental health issues could have played a significant role as well. The problem is that her mean and abusive behavior towards others only got worse into her 20’s and 30's.

By the time I entered into my husband’s family circle, his sister had become prone to frequent rages which I witnessed on many occasions where she would yell and scream at her parents as well as at her own husband in front of everyone — including her young children. When things did not go her way, she devolved into a child-like temper tantrum.

She blamed almost everyone in the family for her personal problems — especially her mother and father, claiming they didn’t support her enough throughout her life.

Personally, I have always held the belief that there is no excuse — no matter what happened to you in your own life — for being abusive towards others.

Nevertheless, I watched my mother-in-law go groveling back for more abuse time after time. I watched her take care of her adult daughter, babysit her grandchildren almost constantly, and often cleaned her daughter’s house for her while she locked herself in her room to sleep.

I know that my mother-in-law did not want to lose her connection with her daughter or her grandchildren. Understandably.

I could never dream of treating my own mother in the manner my sister-in-law treated her mother. I couldn’t imagine my own daughter treating me in that way either — or even being able to tolerate it. Was this the result of too much spoiling? Were her parents too indulgent with her growing up? Were they not strict enough? My husband seemed to think so — but I wasn’t so sure.

Unfortunately, the destructive cycle that my mother-in-law chose to be caught up in with her daughter was not something I could control. She made constant excuses for her daughter’s behavior and I would think to myself, what if my own children grow up to treat me in this way? Would I put up with it? Would I make excuses for them?

What would I do?

One hopes to never have to deal with this at all, obviously.

But how do we know? How do we know if we’ve achieved a gold star in parenting our children? What do we measure it upon? Their kindness? Their success in life? Their relationship with us as their parents?

If our otherwise decent children turn into not-so-nice people when they reach some form of adulthood, are we as parents ultimately to blame?

Obviously, for abusive parents, whether it’s verbal, emotional, or physical abuse — almost anyone would understand a child wanting to disengage from them. Of course.

But what if you were raised without any kind of abuse? Frankly, we all have things we don’t like about our families and our parents. They annoy us. We often don’t agree on issues or ideas. These are not necessarily reasons to cut people out of your life — unless it’s fundamentally hurting you in some way.

My mother-in-law is now estranged from her daughter and from her grandchildren who do desperately love their grandmother and want to see her very much. My mother-in-law’s daughter will randomly call her or text her, berating her with blame and guilt trips for whatever she feels my mother-in-law has or hadn’t done for her.

My mother-in-law continues to put up with this treatment when it happens. However, the reason I think she puts up with it is that she feels like her daughter's behavior is her fault. That somewhere along the way she screwed up as a mother. That she — essentially — got what she raised.

I’m not fully on board with the idea that my mother-in-law got exactly what she raised. She will say that she doesn’t know what went wrong — that she tried her best.

Perhaps, sometimes there are just rotten apples in the batch and you get what you get — not necessarily what you tried to raise with the best of intentions.

My husband was also raised by my mother-in-law and he’s a kind and generous person. He has a loving and healthy relationship with his mother. His other sibling passed away and I didn’t know him very well so I can’t comment on his behavior too much.

Other people I know who grew up with absolutely neglectful and even abusive parents don’t behave as my sister-in-law does and they would have a much better excuse to do so if they so desired.

I have two children I am currently raising. As of now we are all extremely close and share what I believe to be a healthy and nurturing bond together. I try incredibly hard to teach them respect, kindness, and empathy — just as I believe my mother-in-law did with her children.

But what if one or both of my children turn out to be horrible people? Would it be my fault?

Do you really “get what you raise” or is it just a luck of the draw?

I’ve seen kind parents raise hateful people and I’ve seen rotten parents raise the sweetest human beings imaginable.

It makes me wonder how long we as parents have to take responsibility for our children’s behavior. Until they’re 18? 25? 35?

How long must a mother or father be accountable for the choices their children make in life or feel guilty if that child hasn’t turned out to be the most decent human being in the world?

My mother-in-law is still feeling a sense of responsibility for her 35-year-old child. She still wonders what she did wrong. I’ve encouraged her to try and let go of that blame to no avail.

At what point do we, as individuals, become accountable for our own choices and how we choose to treat those around us? At what point do well-meaning parents of kids who maybe didn’t turn out so well as they grew up get to let themselves off the hook?

I think the answer to that is when they decide to. No one can force that decision. It’s a journey. It’s parenting. It really doesn’t ever end no matter the stage.

This is such a fascinating and complicated issue to me and one I will continue to explore while raising my own children.

There are indeed many sides to one story but it's still difficult for me to judge another parent who has given everything to a child without any kind of abuse and/or neglect.

None of us got a parenting guide when we had children. All of us have made mistakes. Most of us work incredibly hard to try and correct the mistakes we do make, as well as doing our best to raise fully-functional and decent human beings.

There are some God-awful parents out there who raised scarred and traumatized children — of that there is no doubt.

However, for the decent parents — the kind parents — the ones who really did love their children to the moon and back— sometimes their adult children need to be estranged from them not only for that child’s own personal journey — but for their parent's mental health and well-being.

More from Michelle: I Met My Ex-Husband For Breakfast — And Learned This Valuable Lesson

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