He hated his parents. His mom acted like a scared Barbie doll, always looking good but never fighting back or standing up to anyone. His dad was a bullheaded drinker with a temper. He figured everything was Cole's fault. Why wasn't his room clean? Why hadn't he emptied the garbage? Why hadn't he mowed the lawn? Why was he even alive? (1.27)
Cole hasn't exactly experienced the happiest family life. Though his parents do provide for him financially, they pretty much starve him of real love and affection—and his father is straight-up abusive.
Cole turned to face the wall. "He drinks until he turns into a monster. Mom just gets drunk and pretends nothing has happened. It's like a bad dream I can't wake up from." (3.17)
There's no lost love between Cole and his parents. When Garvey asks about them, he tells him the truth: They've never been there to support and love him, and they've always been a negative force in his life.
Cole's father sat up taller in his chair. "I'm William Matthews," he announced importantly. "I'm here to make sure my son never causes problems again." He turned and glared at Cole. "This is all going to end now." (4.40)
Instead of being supportive or thinking of ways that he can help Cole, Mr. Matthews just wants to force his son to stop acting out because he's embarrassed by his behavior. He's not actually worried about his emotional well-being.
"We've always wanted the best for Cole," he said. "His mother and I have devoted our lives to him, but he—"
"That's bull!" Cole shouted suddenly, although he wasn't holding the feather. "You drink until you can't stand up, and you're gone all the time. A devoted parent doesn't whip his kid until a shirt can't hide all the bruises!" (5.27-28)
Cole gets super upset when his father speaks during the Circle Justice meeting because he acts like he's been the best parent ever. Cole knows this is far from the truth—he's actually an abusive, alcoholic parent.
Cole tried to be calm, but his voice shook and his face felt hot. "We aren't supposed to lie when we hold the feather, but my father just lied. My parents don't have the time of day for me. I'm just in their way, especially since they split up. I bet my dad can't even tell you when my birthday is." (6.11)
No matter what his parents say to other people, Cole sees right through their lies. He knows that his father is just saying all of these supportive things because he's trying to save his own face. He doesn't actually care about being a good parent.
Watching the bird made Cole curse every second of his miserable and haphazard life. If he were the mother bird, he would just leave the babies to fend for themselves. She didn't owe them anything. (9.7)
Because he's lacked a loving parental presence throughout his life, Cole finds the mother bird's care for her baby birds completely baffling. He can't figure out why she takes care of them so well.
Cole envied the dead sparrows. He had never really known any home. It sure wasn't the big brick building that his parents landscaped and fixed up to impress the neighbors. Nor was it the empty space he returned to most days after school. Even before his parents' divorce, Cole had always wanted to run away from that place. (10.10)
Thanks to his emotionally absent parents, Cole hasn't ever felt tethered to a place or to the people in his life. Instead, he feels like he's never had a real home—he's always been all on his own.
Part 2, Chapter 14
During Cole's hospital stay, many people from the Circle had visited him, including his mother. Her visits had been the hardest. She spoke little except to wring her hands and ask, "How are you doing?" Each visit, she repeated, "I love you. You know that, don't you?" (14.4)
It takes a near-death experience for Cole's mother to come around and realize that she's been a bad parent. She starts visiting all the time, and although Cole finds it strange, he's also willing to give her a chance.
"Don't drown in self-pity," Edwin said. "You have more than most people. There's a whole box of your mom's letters waiting for you back in Drake. She knows you can't have mail, but she still writes every couple of days anyway." (24.28)
Though Cole's relationship with his father hasn't changed by the end of the book, things have definitely gotten better with his mom. She tries to be more present in his life…even when he's away on the Alaskan island.
"Your mother is doing great and sends her love. Your father has filed a lawsuit to have the abuse charges against him dropped. He's also filed for your custody."
"You mean he wants to take me away from my mom?"
"I think it's a matter of pride. He thinks he can always get his way and doesn't want anyone or anything to win out over him." (26.39-41)
Cole's dad wants custody of him, but that doesn't mean he loves or wants his son around. Even Garvey recognizes this for what it is—a power play—and he's not going to let Cole go back to that abusive household.