Our Parenting Fails
My parenting fails and struggles this week…and what I’m learning from them
Consistency is hard because it’s…well…constant
I know that my kids need clear boundaries and consistent follow through. I know this one. I’ve watched it in action time and again in the classroom and in my house. But consistency is hard! It’s hard to not fudge the line when three-year-old naughty is ridiculously cute. It’s hard to fight the chores battle when it’s the end of the day and I’m tired and it’s so much easier to just clean up myself. It’s hard to diligently give the same response over and over to that kid that is really testing the line because he wants to know where the boundary really is. Consistency is hard….
…but it is so so important! Regardless of where I tell my kids the line is, my kids know where the ACTUAL line is. Even if the rules say “Obey the first time,” they know it when the unstated rule has become, “You’ll start getting consequences if I have to warn you three times.” When my kids aren’t responding, and it’s clear that all they’re hearing when I talk is the Charlie Brown teacher’s “wah-wah-wah”, I only have myself to blame. It’s time to buck up, and say it like a mantra, “Clear boundaries, consistent follow through.”
One size doesn’t fit all
None of my children are the same as their siblings. The more children we have, the more amazed I am at the total uniqueness of each one. You’d think there would be an end to the number of personality combinations we could come up with, but this does not appear to be the case. This leads to amazing, fun diversity in our home! But it can also lead to problems if I don’t recognize the implications. I run into all kinds of trouble when I attempt to parent my children as if they’re all the same, and hold them all to the same expectation. (Yes, I know I just said that consistency is the most important thing. But this is different, because while I’m being consistent in my responses to each individual child, I might actually need to vary my responses from one child to another.)
Considering the personalities and core motivations of my kiddos is so huge when I’m responding to their behavior. What looks like defiance and boundary-challenging in one child may actually be a fearful response in another. Recognizing one kiddo’s need for alone-time helps me know when the most effective consequence for her outburst is a time out rather than removal of priviledges. And I can incentivize much more impactfully when I understand that the star chart incentive that motivates positive behavior in one child will have zero effect on their sibling. The times I’ve looked back and regretted the way I corrected a child were often the times that I failed to recognize why they were acting out and what they needed before rushing to correct them.
I want my kids to each recognize their own uniqueness, too. I want them to know that they measure up, and that the things that make them different from their siblings don’t make them less than their siblings. Looking back, I know there have been times when I compared my children to each other and expected things of them that they weren’t ready for. This is especially difficult having so many children so close in age. Kiddos who seem ready for the same things a lot of times aren’t actually ready for the same things, because they’re a year younger…but I assume they should be and push a younger child to do what an older child is doing. And then I wonder why they’re resistant or struggling, crying at soccer games, or throwing fits every day after school.
So I’m trying to take the time to see them each for who they are, to understand what uniquely motivates their choices, to discover how to help them become the best version of themselves.
We have some really argumentative children. As in, maybe one or two will be lawyers someday. Combine super verbal with super persistent in a three-year-old, and you get a kid who can argue around and around the same circle for days. Just for fun. And we have had to institute a special appeals procedure specifically for one particular child in which an argument can only be brought up when it is providing new information…otherwise it’s just nagging.
The problem comes in when I am finding myself frustrated or wound up emotionally by the argument. If I’m at that point, I should have acted a long time ago. I know it’s frustrating that you have to stop the game you’re playing to go take your shower, but unless you have some new information to provide about the shower or your game or something else I don’t know, your standing here debating with me is just disobedience and will receive a consequence.
What my kids (and especially my boys!) need is less talk, more action. No more lectures. No more arguing. Stop talking. Give an instruction, give a consequence. It’s amazing how quickly the dramatic, emotional appeals just go away when the kiddos realize they aren’t going to get anywhere with that tactic.
It’s all about the long game
Far too often I find myself reacting to kids’ behaviors with a short term mentality, or with a motivation to stop a behavior right now, when what I instead need to be doing is figuring out how I can address the behavior with the long term in mind. For example, when the toddler throws a tantrum, my short term mentality prompts me to just pick her up and remove her from the scene. But the long term mentality says, “I don’t want to keep dealing with this behavior in the future, so we are going to practice different responses.”
I can expect from my children every behavior that I tolerate. Most often the short term response, while it may in the moment stop the behavior, doesn’t actually deal with the behavior. When my three year old dumps all the toy cars from the bin, my short term response tells him no, picks them all up, and closes the bin so he can’t dump them again. I just fixed the problem for the moment, but I didn’t actually address the behavior that I don’t want repeated. My tolerance or lack of response to his behavior means that I can expect that behavior to continue.
I’m learning to ask myself, “Is this something I’m okay with my child still doing in three years?” If the answer is no, then I need to address it today. Because if I’m not training against that thing today, I most definitely will still see it three years from now. Except it will be three years uglier, because that child will be three years older and waaaayyy too old for such naughtiness.
Don’t assume I have things figured out
Kids have a wonderful way of keeping you humble. And the more you have, seems like the more opportunities for humbling. The minute I think I’ve got potty training strategies figured out, along comes kiddo number four to defy my tried and true methods. Or as soon as I start thinking I know how my friend should handle her kids’ sibbling squables, that’s when I hit a particularly rough week in which two of my children are constantly at each others’ throats.
While experience is a fabulous teacher and I am confident that I know more now than I did before having children, I’ve come to realize that there is so much I don’t know or understand! This helps me look with empathy at the mama in the grocery story whose toddler is kicking and screaming down the aisle, because I recognize that I don’t know her situation. I’m not raising her child, and while I have plenty of practice with tantrums, I may not have any understanding for the day-to-day parenting challenges she is facing.
There are a lot of good ways to parent, and I can tell you what I’ve tried and had success with. But there’s definitely not one right way. So I give grace to my neighbor and to myself on our rough days, and continue to learn and do my best.
JAMIN RESPONDS: Definitely not one right way. Plenty of people who claim there is. That sells more books, I guess. And makes you feel like an expert. I think consistency and not engaging are my favorites and most difficult from your list, which are the keys to the long game. ARG – We didn’t even mention the difference between rules for the home, rules for the life and rules for the morals. Preparing them for life includes proper hygiene, it doesn’t include our particular laundry system or even our diet. That’s a huge deal in the long game: some rules are for us, some are for them, and some are for God. I’m feeling post #2 coming on…
tldr: It’s a crapshoot. Do your best.
Some of my bravest, most noble intentions have resulted in terrible consequences. Not all who fail are doing their best, but all who do their best fail. And right after a failure, that’s hard for me to remember. Often what keeps me determined to continue on is someone I respect being willing to share a story of their own failure.
For those who never try, the phrase, “Everyone makes mistakes,” will just be an excuse, but the rest, it’s a humbling encouragement and hope for redemption.
So this is different from things I just feel bad about. I feel bad when my kid breaks his arm or chips her tooth or gets laughed at by others. My kids have physical scars from things I feel like I could have prevented if I had been more careful, but that’s true about all physical scars. If I bubble wrap them enough and keep them home they’ll almost never get hurt…and almost never have fun. I’m much more concerned about the emotional scars I cause. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to prevent life and friends and enemies from emotionally scaring them, but I just don’t want to be the cause, as much as possible.
So here are the top things I remember at the moment that I’m afraid caused the worst kind of damage and that I am determined to prevent in the future. Honestly, I couldn’t even bet on the damage that any one of these things did. I doubt that when they grow up their list of I-can’t-believe-my-parents-BLANK will match my list. And that’s fine. These are the things I want to change so I am the kind of person I want to be, not so I can insure they’ll have a perfect life with a perfect dad and no bad memories.
These are, however, great opportunities to tell my kids I’m sorry. I think that’s the one that matters most – that dad doesn’t think he’s perfect or has all the right answers or is always right about the way his words and actions should have been interpreted. If my heart is open to regular apologies (not “I’m such a terrible dad” apologies that reverse roles or require my kids to comfort me, but, “I should have made a better decision here and I’m sorry it probably negatively affected your life” apologies that take responsibility for inconsiderate decisions), I hope my kids will feel comfortable bringing up what is on the list of things that hurt them. But if my kids have never seen me apologize, admit fault, or be hurt that I caused hurt, I don’t see how they could have any context to approach such an issue with me.
So hopefully they won’t even remember some of the following…and that’s probably the case. In fact, the scariest thing is: memory probably won’t be accurate and some of the scars I’ll get credit for were things I don’t even remember, or didn’t intend the way they took it, or didn’t even happen. (Only God knows how many of my memories of my childhood were actually just vivid dreams or stories remembered wrong so many times, the history was completely rewritten.) Either way, the following are the things I plan to fix as soon as Amazon starts offering time machines:
1 – Tower of Terror: Iffy ideas have to be my kids’ ideas.
Time at Disneyland was limited. Possibilities were not endless. We needed to have a plan and stick to it. My son had ridden the scariest rides I’d ever been on, so I was sure Tower of Terror was right for him. And he was willing…at first.
As we got further and further up the line (hours of anticipation) he became more and more reluctant until we were in our seats and it was basically a barrage of encouragement and prodding. “You’re gonna do it. You’re gonna love it. It’s great. You’ll be fine. You’re gonna want to do it again.” Only the first of those wasn’t a lie. It was horrendous, and seemed to last forever!
Never again. I’ll gladly go with them and nudge them to take risks and try new things, but they have to hold the rip cord. Unless it’s a matter character, they’re stepping out on their own.
2 – Leaving for Camp: My kids are the only kids that only I can help.
There are plenty of great reasons to leave my kids…sad reasons, but legitimate reasons. There are families in the military, work trips that can’t be avoided, and emergencies that must be attended to. This was none of those.
Our first kid was just to the age of tea parties with her stuffed animals. I was just to the age of not totally sucking at being the main speaker at Christian kids camps (yeah – lots fire, lots of candy, the obligatory Christian magic tricks, and LOT of Audio Adrenaline…ah, fond memories). When they offered me the spot I took it, which meant a lot of prep work, especially the week or two before, and then the packing and the leaving.
Sunday as I’m about to take off, my daughter invites me into her room where all her stuffed animals are propped up in attendance and she asks if there is any way I have time to join their tea party before I leave. Of course I did and it killed me that I would be missing the other tea parties for the rest of the week. Maybe that wasn’t a cry for attention. Maybe that wasn’t a subconscious plea for me to stay close to her. Maybe it was just a tea party and I happened to be home at the moment, so I was the random person being invited. But you know what happened when I stopped doing camps? They found someone else. And they did great. And you know what happened to all those camp kids without me there? They still had just as good a camp if not better than when I was there.
I’m not as important to the world as my ego wishes I were. And the degree to which I am important to my kids is terrifying. That doesn’t mean I should suffocate them with my unrelenting surveillance and presence, but I at least want to be able to RSVP to as many of the tea parties I’m invited to as possible.
I still have a picture of that tea party that rotates on my wallpaper and socks me in the gut each time. That was my one week to have tea parties with that girl at that age. I’ll never get those back. What are the things that are my one week to do this week?
3 – Asking About the Last Baby: I shouldn’t give the kids the feeling that they have a vote when they don’t
We took a vote on having a baby. Big mistake! The kids don’t really get a vote on what car we buy. Or what house we can afford. Or what job I should take. Or what their allowance is. Or even what cable package we should order. That would be insane! They’re dumb. Not dumb for kids. Smart for kids! But kids are dumber than adults. Any adult who disagrees is the exception.
We let them vote on what kind of dog to get or what color to paint their room. But even then, we aren’t rescuing the violent dog from the pound and we make them pick paint colors that won’t clash. Why? Because my kid literally has the education of a second-grader and the social skills of a 7-year-old! They don’t know what factors are going to be most important; they don’t think long-term; they have no realistic concept of what the consequences will mean practically.
Don’t get me wrong – we definitely consider our kids when making decisions, but we don’t give them votes on important issues. I know this sounds heartless, but all good parents do the same. If the kids vote candy for dinner, their vote doesn’t count. It’s only if they vote for something that we already agree with, like chicken and broccoli, that we count their vote…and feel noble for doing so! But when your vote only counts if it agrees with the establishment, that’s called a dictatorship.
So I’d rather be honest: for big decisions, I’m willing to hear their opinions and then throw them out if I don’t think they match what is best for the family. I think that is the honest and most compassionate solution. This really only affects the wording. I still want to hear what you think about this car/house/job/cable package/baby, but we’re making the decision on a whole lot of other factors. So I understand you want Christmas colors on your walls and that poor snarling pitbull in the corner, but in Spring your decorations will still match your wall colors and you’ll still have all ten of your fingers. I’m sorry you’re mad. I love you. You’re welcome.
4 – Letting Doggy Out Of The House: No lesson. Just anger. Oh – and Doggie can’t go out of the house any more.
Doggie was the favorite stuffed animal and went everywhere with my daughter. One day while at Once Upon a Child she set Doggie down to check out another toy. Of course, Doggie got left behind, but not for long. It was almost immediate that Doggie was missed and the store was revisited. Mind you – this is a store that specializes in things that kids love. This Doggie was obviously out of place, very loved, and would not be there for long before her owner tearfully came back to rescue her from her loneliness.
Nope! They immediately threw her away. THREW. HER. AWAY.
Mindless. Heartless. Loveless. Soul-less. Without the common decency to wait a few hours to see if some poor child…I mean…come on! This wasn’t a candy wrapper! Or even a mysterious random trinket dropped at an unremarkable location. It’s obvious what exactly had happened.
No need to involve Sherlock on this one. Any booger-eating moron could take half a look at the situation and tell you exactly what had happened and even sketch a pretty reliable rendering of the original owner. Did you guess a little girl came into this establishment and got distracted by all the toys and momentarily set down her most beloved stuffed animal only to be whisked away by her mother before remembering to collect all her things and so you’re sure they’ll be back within a couple hours as the mom is panic-stricken and retraces all her steps of the afternoon errands? You nailed it, Einstein! Oh – and nice drawing of a Caucasian 5-year-old female with curly blonde hair, blue eyes and ill-fitting pink pom pom winter boots. That’s pretty much her! But I can see that other employee has already thrown out the evidence, so we won’t be needing that.
5 – Spanking: No single consequence or method is the answer to all behavior problems.
It just went farther than was beneficial for the situation. And as the Protector Papa, I still feel horrible about it. I’m not anti-spanking. I’m not anti-time-out. I’m not anti-grounding. I’m just more cautious now about increasing the pressure on one consequence when it doesn’t seem to be working. And while I can decrease the length of a time out or grounding when it’s obviously not effective, physical pain is not something I can take back. So I’d much rather try a bunch of different things and see what works. I’m sure what works will vary from kid to kid.
6 – The Pipe Cleaner Incident: Don’t be petty. If you see something, do something.
Crawling babies put everything in their mouths, so when I saw the art project that involved the older kids cutting pipe cleaners, I thought this would end badly. As it turns out, this time I was right.
Now, I have that feeling often, and I’m usually just being a spoil sport, so this was no supernatural premonition. The family was just being more messy than I was comfortable with and it also happened to end badly. Two unrelated, but true, facts.
So long story short, we spend days in the hospital, 10-month old dude with a massive infection that his body isn’t able to fight and doctors telling us they can’t promise he’ll make it. A tiny little snippet of pipe cleaner had nicked holes in his intestine as it passed through, only to get caught at the very end and make it uncomfortable enough for him not to be willing to extend his left leg – our first sign that something was terribly wrong (babies who hurt and can’t tell you a word about it are heart-wrenching!). And this was several days after the art project, so we had no reason to initially correlate the two.
This was not Wendy’s fault. I partially say that because I know she’ll read this and I’m sure she feels as much at fault as when something I’m involved in goes horribly wrong. She shouldn’t feel bad about this one. It may have been preventable, but it wasn’t predictable. (I mean sure, I predicted it, but if you predict a catastrophe in every situation, eventually you’ll be right. That doesn’t mean it was predictable.)
I also say it wasn’t Wendy’s fault to remind me. She does projects with the kids constantly and you know how they turn out? Great! Fantastic. Adorable. Fun. Creative. Joyful. So you know what I could do if I’m really worried about something going wrong? Pitch in. Maybe clean up if I don’t think their cleaning will be enough. Maybe don’t be so petty or frustrated and just get in and help out.
My dad was fantastic at this! To this day, he just gets in and helps out for any one, any time. No sacrifice is too big. No inconvenience is a big deal. I didn’t inherit that one so much, but I’m hoping to fake it enough that my kids will remember me going out of my way instead of staying out of their way.
WENDY RESPONDS: Oh man, so many heart-wrenching memories in this one…you picked some good ones. But I do love what you said about having a heart that is open to regular apologies. I hope that in the end our kids know that we were doing our best, and that we are transparent enough to talk about the things that we struggled with along the way.