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When our kids let us down (and why it's not their fault)

POSTED September 22, 2017 6:01 a.m.
I growled at my daughter this week.

Not yelled. Not scolded. Growled.

I had felt myself becoming increasingly frustrated throughout the week. The house was a mess. No one seemed to be pitching in to help. And for all my checklists and nagging, we couldn’t ever get everything done by bedtime or be on time for school in the morning.

So, when my daughter told me she wanted to change her outfit when we were already late for school and she should have figured this out the day before but she waited until the last second, I growled. It was kind of a half-yell, half-guttural/animalistic response that surprised myself as much as it did her. She stared at me with wide eyes and then scurried away. I stopped buckling the baby into the car, sat on the edge of my minivan and cried.

All morning I felt terrible. So terrible that I went to have lunch with her at school because I couldn’t wait until the end of the day to apologize. I even did a real apology, one that didn’t end with “but you really should have XYZ.” I just said I was sorry. I was wrong. I felt awful.

She, of course, told me it was OK because kids are awesome and resilient. But deep down, I knew my response had disturbed her, maybe even made her feel a little less safe with me. A little less sure.

I’ve been trying to retrace my steps that built up to this moment. Why was I so mad? Why did I snap? What I realized was that I was inflicting my standards on my children. All week, my frustration was building because I expected my children to behave how I needed them to behave. And when they failed — because they’re kids — I got mad. They let me down.

When I stood there growl-yelling at my daughter, I let her down right back. I let her down because I fell into a trap that I had just recently read about in an article by blogger Jennifer Phillips titled “When Your Kids Won’t Bow to Your Idols.”

Essentially, the idea is that we have idols, all these ideas about the kind of parents we are, the kind of life we should live, the kind of children we have, and the kind of image we want others to see when they look at us. We work hard on these idols. We dedicate hours of worship to them.

And sometimes, our children don’t get the memo. They don’t care that we think a happy family means punctual bedtimes and clean floors. They don’t care that we think mornings shouldn’t be rushed or that children should behave a certain way.

I was bowing to my idols when my daughter wouldn’t. And that ticked me off.

Of course, I want to teach my children life skills about how to be neat, to behave, to lay out clothes the night before so you’re not changing pants at the 11th-hour when we’re already late for carpool. But here’s the key question: Am I doing those things in an effort to lovingly teach my children or because I am clinging desperately to self-made idols?

I think anytime a growl is involved, I already know the answer. I wasn’t teaching; I was shaming. I was trying to force my daughter to bow to these idols and my ideals of what motherhood and childhood should look like.

I probably do this more than I’d like to admit, and I’m sure I’m not alone. We expect our children to act a certain way, be a certain person and make the choices we think they should make. When we go down that path, it’s only a matter of time before our kids let us down, because guess what? They are individuals with quirks and talents and flaws and personalities and agency, and sometimes they don’t give a flying flip what idols we’ve chiseled out for ourselves.

At the end of the day, that’s a good thing because I need constant reminding that none of my idols are as important as my children. No image or punctuality or cleanliness or behavioral gold star matters more than how I make my children feel.

Standing there in that garage, I know I made her feel less. I made her feel like a failure. But I was the one who failed her. And even though I know I won’t change overnight, from now on, I‘m trying to loosen my grip on my idols, and hold my wonderfully imperfect children tight instead.

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