Generally speaking, we parents like to think of ourselves as the adults in our relationships with our children, right? Unfortunately, this perspective often binds us to the idea of being “right” all the time, or being the ideal version of a grown-up human, or being the “one in charge”, or being the only “authority figure” in the room. And just as often, we get stuck inside our roles and confused about how to orchestrate the seemingly opposing drives of our parental identities. For instance, when we make a mistake of any real import, as we do and surely will, we get paralyzed by the seeming contradiction between maintaining our “position” and risking a loss of face by admitting and addressing our mistake(s).
The thinking seems to go that, if we admit being less than “parental”, we will lose our ability to be effective parents — and generally this “effectiveness” is synonymous with being able to control our children, and make them do whatever we say. The trouble is we lose too much by protecting this particular border.
- First, we lose perspective on just what we are doing as parents, and get distracted by the idea that our primary occupation is “controlling our kids”. That isn’t our main job as parents, and if it is where we are spending all of our time, then we’ve got something else to address in the relationship. (Control is not a pragmatic focus — nurturing, loving, equipping, and empowering our kids to grow into healthy, fully-realized, self-assured adults who are unafraid of new challenges, unabashed in their humanness, and able to admit, redress, and learn from their mistakes is.)
- Secondly, by trying to control the image we broadcast to our children in order to maintain tighter control over their actions, we lose access to our children, who look to us more for care, protection, assistance, and empowerment than for hedging. If all we ever do is seek to stay firmly couched in our roles as puppet-masters then we are pushing our self-determining children to usurp our power just so that they can live as individuals. (This “access” to our children is the fulcrum of our parental role. It is the means for teaching them about how to live, as well as, for empowering them to trust us with knowing who they are, what’s going on for them, and what they do/have done/will do. Without it, we are rudderless ships tossed on torrential seas.)
- We also, lose track of how it works to be human — that is, learning by watching, experimenting, exploring, making mistakes, and changing strategies. By locking ourselves in as the perfect enforcers of perfection, we don’t leave ourselves or our children enough room to be human. And self-worth plummets for all involved. (Our children need to see us being human so that they feel safe being so as well. Our humanness, makes being human seem natural, our unwaivering perfection and insistence on being right and punishing wrong, combined with our refusal to admit mistakes, creates such a skewed version of being human that our children are led to feel incapable of measuring up.)
- In addition, we do our children a life-encompassing disservice if we refuse to let them see us make mistakes and then admit our mistakes and make amends. It’s an incredibly valuable set of skills effecting their abilities in everything from being fearless to attempt new things and have close emotional relationships with and while being fallible humans, to being fearlessly honest and committed to cleaning up if things go awry. And children don’t learn such skills in an environment where their role models don’t make mistakes, or admit them, or do anything afterward to rectify the situation. And further, if we just force our children to behave a certain way, or “say sorry”, then they just learn how to perform, not how to be or do or feel life.
So my encouragement to you is to make sure you mess up big time, in front of your kids, and on a regular basis. Lose your cool. Blow your top. Make an ass of yourself. Do the things you wish you never did. And then, afterward, let your kids see and hear you admit your mistake(s). Let them feel your empathy. Let them witness you reestablishing harmony, and striving to make new choices the next time.
In our home, as I’m sure you’ve gotten the impression already, we do a lot of asking questions, sharing, and talking. So when we make a mistake, and we do regularly, we talk about it and see if we can restore understanding, rebalance feelings, and clean up the elements that got disheveled. In a general sense, we proceed just as we would want our kids to proceed. It might go something like this:
- In the first place, we do our best not to feed into our children’s notions of us as infallible, in part, by being open about our feelings and struggles. We don’t create fear or insecurity by being too dramatic or detailed, but we’re honest about not always having the answers and not always doing everything perfectly.
- When we realize that we’ve made a mistake, we will admit it, either in the moment, or a short time later (not the next week or ten years later). We call attention to the mistake, that we made it, and that it was unintentional or that we just blew it (whatever the case).
- We apologize, if that feels appropriate, but not automatically. If we stepped on a toe, we might say an immediate, “Sorry, dear…”. But if we threw away one of the girl’s favorite new drawings, or misunderstood and wrongly asserted that she was not telling the truth about something, we might say, “I’m sorry, I misunderstood,” etc., but more importantly we’d also be likely to explain that it was an honest error, and spend some time expressing our empathy with her plight, rather than just shoving a perfunctory apology in her face as though that should evaporate her feelings about it. The point is that we consider the situation and the appropriateness of an apology, instead of just using the action as a cure-all. What we want, rather then to be heard saying “sorry”, is to let our children know that we empathize with them, and that we wish we hadn’t made the mistake, and that we wish to rectify the situation if we can. “I’m sorry” isn’t a phrase that actually contains any of that other stuff, and that stuff is much more important than an apology.
- As intimated above, whether we end up actually apologizing or not, we definitely empathize. That’s the underlying motivation for rectifying the situation in the first place, and the most appropriate response we think we can have when our kids are upset. We want to make space for the feelings they are having, even, and especially, when those feelings are because they are angry, or bummed, or upset with us. Taking a moment, at least, to accept their feelings and recognize them for what they are is most often far more powerful in actually assisting their process of feeling better than an apology could ever be. It also usually means we don’t have to fix anything. Being heard in their moment of discontent often winds up being more important than changing anything in the situation.
- If there is something to be changed, fixed, redressed, or rectified — then we do that. And we do our best to do it in a way that communicates our love, rather than guilt, placation, or (perhaps, more likely) indignation. We might be feeling any one or all of those things, but that’s not our children’s responsibility, and more importantly, not what we want to model. We figure that if we have decided to rectify the situation, then the least we can do is be adult about it, and show our kids that the way to make amends is with grace, and compassion.
We recognize that dropping the focus on controlling them, being willing to be honest about our humanness, admitting our mistakes, and seeking to make amends with our children when we do make mistakes is counter-cultural, and counter-conventional, and to some people, even counter-intuitive. We are well aware that doing it this way means doing battle with our own heads as much as it might mean doing battle with friends and family to justify our choices (though, we’ve never had to actually do the latter). I’ll confess, too, that though I now find it easy to do with our kids, I still find the above processes quite difficult to do with adults. But I’m working on it…
The bottom line is that, even though we have to work against our own programming, and against what we’ve been told, the work of being authentic and empathizing with our children, as well as, modeling these traits to them, and empowering them to accept themselves and others (and everyone’s mistakes) more easily, is among the most worthwhile work we can imagine. When we screw up, and admit it, and clean it up with our kids, we are giving them so much that I almost wish we were jerks more often… almost.
Be (fallible) well.