Don’t let that little number in the title fool you. It represents only a fraction of the parenting mistakes I’ve made throughout the years. If I were to enumerate each one, we would be dealing with a novel the length of War and Peace. It would also make for some really rotten reading, too. I decided to pare down and summarize. Many of my parenting mistakes can be summarized under four key headings.
1. I often forget we are on the same team.
I like to win. It is one of those character traits that can either be really good or really bad. Too often in my parenting, it falls into the bad category. This is particularly true when I see myself as competing against one of my children. I’m not talking about cut-throat games of Monopoly here (though those are also a part of my story), instead I’m talking about relationships. When a child is having a difficult time, and those difficulties come out in less-than-pleasant behavior, it is so, so easy to start seeing that child as your adversary. He wants one thing (or doesn’t want one thing), and you want the opposite. Instead of letting go my need to be right or in charge right away and figuring out what is going on, I all too often dig in and make something that shouldn’t be a big deal, a really big deal. Because to do otherwise, would somehow feel as though I lost.
What I forget is that people on the same team cannot lose to each other. It’s actually just the opposite. If either one of them loses, everyone loses. I have gotten better at remembering this sooner in my interactions with my children, but it is such an easy mistake to allow to happen. I need to constantly remind myself that I need to help my teammates, not makes things oh, so much worse.
2. I didn’t go for help sooner.
This is one I really kick myself over. For years, with my son’s hard behavior, I would tell myself, “I think he’s getting better.” Here’s a little tip for you. If you find yourself needing to say this over and over and over, it’s not getting better. If it were, that little parenting amnesia-thing would kick-in, and you would forget exactly how bad things were, and cease to even think about it. Repeating constantly to yourself that things are getting better really only means that you are still thinking about it, and thus, not getting better at all. Do not make my mistake. Find outside help… NOW. If I had done this, I would have saved us years (yes, years, no exaggeration there) of pain and trauma. I cannot get those wasted years back, but I can save someone else from losing years from their relationship with their own children. If this is you, find outside help now. I don’t even actually care if you read the rest of this article, if you are picking up the phone to make a phone call in that direction.
3. I misuse my imagination.
I have a rampant imagination. I am happy to make up stories and imagine things about the people I see around me. I am happy to imagine different happy scenarios about my future life. Much of the time, these are happy, stress free thoughts. But having such an imagination also has a darker side. I am also capable of using my imagination to project some not so happy events. Over the course of the years, my children have repeatedly contracted and died from any number of horrible (and often rare) illnesses. I can go from cough or small rash to bubonic plague in a matter of seconds. One time, when someone yelled from the bathroom that one of my sons had an odd spot on him, it took me the length of the hallway to be planning his funeral. Truly, I’m not exaggerating, and I don’t think I am alone in this little quirk. Usually I can catch myself, give myself a mental dope slap upside the head, laugh, and move on.
Just as we give grace to our children who are still growing, we need to give grace to ourselves, because we are still growing as well.
Other times I’m not so good at differentiating fact from fiction. I read a lot. I like to do research. I know what probable prognosis several of my children could have for their future lives based on where they are now. Many of them are not terribly pretty or pleasant. Because they are within the realm of actual possibility (as opposed to the likelihood of having contracted bubonic plague), I all too often see these predictions as set in stone. And you know what, we are far enough out with some of them, that my little crystal ball of future predictions has been wrong every single time. Sometimes I forget that my skills at predicting the future are extremely poor. I also have a feeling that most other parents’ future predicting skills are equally poor. Yet, we go along as if we know exactly what is going to happen. When I am living in fear, because I am absolutely certain what the future is going to be, I am not a good parent… or even a pleasant one.
Often my anger and impatience and irritation is really just a more convenient emotion than the fear I am actually feeling. Fear that my child will always be like this. Fear that my child won’t always be like this. Fear that I am an inadequate mother. Fear that I have ruined my child. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Once I stop and identify what it is I’m really feeling, I can usually better manage it. For instance, the sometimes overwhelming irritation that my child has once again not done what I asked. The kind of irritation that makes my head explode a little. A reaction, I might add, that is completely out of proportion to the problem at hand. Really, because this seems to be an ongoing issue, I am afraid that my child will never be responsible. And my child will never be responsible because I somehow didn’t manage to inculcate the appropriate level of responsibility in them. Without responsibility, then will this child be doomed to live in my basement forever… ? From dirty socks on the floor to troll-child in 30 seconds flat, and I’m angry to boot. Far better to stop, identify what it is that I’m really feeling, and address that. Then, in a more rational frame of mind, I can work with my child to find a solution to the dirty sock problem.
4. I expect things of my child that I still struggle with.
This little failure of mine is very much a related issue with number three. It’s all about emotional equilibrium and having self-understanding. Let me tell you a little story from yesterday. (Yes, I am not perfect yet, nor is my parenting. I still have a long way to go.) We have just moved, and are in the process of meeting new people and finding new support systems. It feels like a long and somewhat grueling process to reconstruct all we had in our old place. I haven’t had to create new social systems from scratch since I left for college and that was quite literally decades ago. Yesterday I had arranged for us all to go to a park day that a local homeschooling group was hosting. I had messaged back and forth with a couple of the moms, but had yet to meet anyone in person. My children were excited to be finally having something social to do other than watch me open boxes, and I was… nervous.
Except I didn’t know I was nervous. Instead, I felt pressed for time and hurried and irritated that everyone was being just a little cross and snippy with one another. We make it to the park, and end up having a pretty nice time. It wasn’t until later that I was able to put the pieces together and realize what I was really feeling and that my emotions were feeding the snippiness in the household in general. It is pretty easy to see when written out and in hindsight, but it certainly wasn’t clear to me at the time. I just knew things weren’t feeling right, but didn’t stop to figure out why.
Yet how often do I expect my children to be able to do this? They are in grumpy moods and take it out on the rest of the family. It is vexing because from the outside I can usually see what is going on, and I don’t see why they can’t just address the real issue and move on, putting the rest of us out of our misery. In reality, this is a very high level skill that even well-adjusted adults can struggle with. Why would I expect my still-healing-from-trauma child be able to clearly and rationally name and address big, deep feelings, even if they are obvious to everyone else? I don’t know why, but I so often do.
Just as we give grace to our children who are still growing, we need to give grace to ourselves, because we are still growing as well. Mistakes and failures at least give us ample opportunities to model humility and the art of apologizing. I know I’ve had plenty of practice at both those things.