Authenticity. Now there’s a word that is often conspicuously missing from discussions about parenting practices. And yet, it is something with which we all have to wrestle, or make peace, everyday — especially when dealing with our children. When it comes right down to it, how we choose to be with our kids is just as, if not more, important than what we do or don’t do.
Let’s be clear. I don’t mean that I expect any of us to be perfect — I want us all to blow it royally as often as necessary. And I don’t expect any of us to always know just what to do in whatever situation that arises — I’d rather us muck around looking for the best solution in the moment. And I don’t expect that everything we try will work — I wouldn’t trust any parenting method that “always works”.
What I hope we can make space for in our lives as parents is to show up, fully and freely, as we are. That means if we are feeling grouchy, or sad, or mixed up, or anything — we may freely admit that, and perhaps even discuss it with our children. If in the morning, we are feeling sleepy, a bit slow, or even irritated, then I think we ought to just own that at the first possible opportunity — out loud, to our children, just as we would hope that they would do with us.
In addition, as I have mentioned before, being authentic also includes owning our imperfections. When we blow it — because we will all blow it… repeatedly, over and over again — we would do ourselves a huge favor if we would embrace and admit it. We would do our relationships with our kids an even bigger favor if we also apologized on such occasions. We could even consider it our best opportunity to model how we want our kids to handle themselves when they make mistakes — because they all will make mistakes from time to time. If we are brave, and honest, even when it pricks our pride, or tarnishes our parenting metal, then our children will be that much more likely to do the same when they are shy, embarrassed, or ashamed. And by dismantling some of the mystique of our parenting roles, and letting our children see that we are fallible, that we make mistakes, and that we seek to make amends when we do, we make ourselves more approachable. It’s like the difference between approaching a lion and a mirror.
Another great reason for, and part of, showing up in our kids’ lives more completely is that they get more of us. More of our individual idiosyncrasies, more of our habits, and more of our perspectives on the many aspects of life that they will see us encounter. And I would argue that it is who we are that will mean the most to who our children become. If we don’t give them regular, firsthand accounts of what we are like, they will have a tougher time figuring out what they are like, what they want, what moves them, and why. If they get to see us being who we really are, then so much more about themselves tends to make sense, especially as they get older and are “on their own”.
Being open and communicative about where we are, how we feel, and what we need, offers a lot to our connections with our children. Some parenting experts would claim that this risks crossing over the invisible boundary from “parent” into the dangerous realm of “friend” — a mysterious no-fly-for-any-reason zone. But I would argue, instead, that owning our feelings and being honest with our children (within reason and as appropriate for their ages) is less about trying to make ourselves into their friends and more about allowing ourselves to appear more huma. As intimated above, this is important for fostering the relationships we share with our kids because, the opposite — being seen as an unfeeling, all powerful, never-faltering god — has the effect of alienating our children from connecting with us. Just put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Would you find it easier to relate to someone who is honest, open about how she feels, and authentic, or with someone who is closed, never admits mistakes, never allows you to know his thoughts, and seems to be masking his true feelings?
If we are honest with ourselves about how we would feel in that situation, I think it becomes easy to understand why seeing us firmly couched in our stoic, two-dimensional parental roles tends to obstruct our children’s ability (and desire) to connect with us. That is problematic for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that if our stage-parent roles block us from connection with our children, chances are they won’t trust us as much. If they don’t trust us, they won’t be open and honest with us, they won’t look to us when they are in trouble or in need, and they won’t be as likely to believe our word, or respect our requests.
To trace the progression in the opposite direction — if we want our children to follow our lead; if we want them to be honest with us, and come to us for help when they need it; if we want them to talk to us about their feelings, and connect with us in the richest possible way; then we want to foster their trust in us. The most direct method of growing trust is to regularly be trusting. If we want them to be real with us, we have to be real with them. This is one part modeling, and one part creating the circuit through which the trust will flow between us and our children. Trust is very much like respect in that one is less likely to receive it unless one is also giving it. Ever trusted or respected someone who you felt was hiding something?
In the end, if we want our children to be authentic, to show up fully in the world as who they are, then we had better show them how. Not by being something totally different than we expect them to be, but by being everything that we hope for them. That is the best that we can possibly offer them as they are growing up. It is also the best that we can possibly offer ourselves as we parent them and continue to grow as well.