Some moments it is easy to stay present and thoughtful and aware and centered as we interact with our little ones. In those moments things work out. They flow. They flourish even. We seem to move from interaction to interaction with our children as if this parenting thing is the most natural thing in the world.
And then, in an instant, everything changes.
Maybe something doesn’t go their way. Maybe something doesn’t go our way. But suddenly we find ourselves struggling to make sense of who this person is in front of us and what in the world we are supposed to do with them. Suddenly, none of the parenting tricks, rules, recommendations or advice work. We can feel our discomfort growing. It is small at first. A nudge in the back of our mind. A whisper really. What if I can’t handle this?
And, of course, it is usually in those moments that this little person in front of us is relentless. They push. They pull. They poke and prod. They have amazing accuracy when it comes to pushing buttons from a distance. At least it feels that way in the moment.
And the discomfort grows. It’s churning now. Maybe it feels like anger. Maybe it feels like fear. Or frustration. Or annoyance. It’s morphing and materializing. What am I going to do? I must get this under control.
And then it happens. We hear ourselves do the thing we hate. The thing we always say we wouldn’t do. It’s kind of like slow motion. We know we are going to do it. We don’t want to. Our mind flashes to all the “appropriate” parenting strategies we “should” be using in this instance. But. We. Just. Can’t. Stop. Ourselves. You know what I’m talking about. It’s different for all of us. Maybe it’s yelling or using the dreaded words “because I said so.” Or “wait till your father gets home.” Or “no dessert.” Maybe it’s giving a spanking or slamming a door or whatever. It doesn’t matter because the point is, in the moment, we all wish we had it together, but we still find ourselves being less than perfect.
Of course it happens to all of us, but what does it mean? How do we reconcile the parents we want to be with the parents we are and, worst of all, the parents we know we could be? Do we pretend that our shortcomings don’t happen? Do we blame others? Do we give up and stop aspiring to be better parents?
The truth is that there are no perfect parents. And, if you ask me, that is a good thing, especially if perfect parenting means always being in control, always responding consistently and appropriately, always keeping our personal feelings in check as we interact with our children. If perfect parenting always means being calm and fair and well…perfect, then it also means missing out.
If parents were perfect, then how would children learn about real life? How would they learn about healthy adversity? How would they learn about emotions? How would they learn how to tolerate stress and ambiguity and how in the world would they learn that it is okay to be human?
Don’t get me wrong. We can be hopeful that most of the time we respond and interact with our children in a way that is consistent with our views on optimal parenting. We should strive for that and we should never resort to anything that is abusive or harmful. But we should also know that we won’t always be perfect.
Rather than expecting perfection, we can use our “human” moments to teach our children life lessons: how to admit fault, take responsibility, make amends, recognize the need for change. We all know that children learn from what we do rather than what we say. Why would we assume that we can simply tell them how to do these things when we can show them? Rather than expecting perfection and hiding in shame when we fail, we can talk to our kids. These moments can be learning experiences for everyone. We can apologize and role model coping skills like taking a deep breath or a moment to ourselves. We can show them that we are human and in doing so we give them permission to do the same.
But maybe more importantly, it gives us the ability to relax just a little bit. Remembering that there are no perfect parents helps me to take a step back. It allows me to say, “I’m not sure, I’ll have to think about that” or “I was wrong” or “I don’t know.” It allows me to say, “Mama needs a minute” or “I’m feeling really frustrated” or “I’m not quite sure what to do here, got any ideas?” Not only does this awareness help to avoid those dreaded reactions we all fear so much, but it might just help to shed some light on the situation. Maybe we think to ourselves, “I’m out of my league here, what would (my mom, my mentor, my friend) do?” or “maybe I should call in reinforcements.” Or maybe, we can even ask the kiddo.
It is amazing, but when parents do this, little ones may just surprise us with their response. One day as my three-year-old made his thirtieth or so lap around the house screeching at the top of his lungs, I caught him and whispered in his ear, “I just don’t know how to help you right now.” He responded with a high pitched, “I NEED TO GO TO SLEEP!!!!!!!” and took off for lap number thirty-one. Alrighty then…at least I knew what direction to head, which is more than I could have said a few moments earlier. I had admitted defeat and he had given me a clue. But that was only possible because I reminded myself that I wasn’t perfect.