If we think back on our own childhoods, we can probably remember bad parenting that hurt us, but also good parenting that stayed with us and continues to strengthen and comfort us even as a memory. This shows that good parenting is real parenting, and it is powerful. So it’s good practice to remind yourself of what you’re doing right. There is probably more than you think, and it probably means more than you realize. Go ahead and list it off for yourself, the slight and the huge, the occasional and the constant. Most parents are doing so much better than they think they are.
Not a failure: “My daughter is pregnant.”
Failure: “My daughter had an abortion because she knew damn well what would happen to her if she turned up pregnant in this house.”
Not a failure: “My child is severely depressed.” “My child has debilitating anxiety.” “My child is suicidal.” “My child has learning disability.” “My child is non-neurotypical.”
Failure: “I have no idea what to do, but there’s no way I’m letting stranger into our personal lives. Professional help is for people who can’t hack it, and I don’t belong in a waiting room with that trash.”
Not a failure: “We are totally crashing and burning in the home school/private school/religious school/public school we thought would be so perfect for our kind of family.”
Failure: “We are totally crashing and burning, but if we quit, we’ll be failures as parents/let down the community/have to admit we’re wrong/change our lives around. We better keep going, so everyone will know we care about our kids.”
Not a failure: “I don’t understand my kid very well, and it’s hard to talk.”
Failure: “My kid has a great relationship with my spouse, or with her teacher, or with her friend’s mom. I undermine this relationship every chance I get, because they’re usurping me. I’m the parent.”
Not a failure: “My kid is screwing up in exactly the same ways I did or do.”
Failure: “Boy, does this look familiar, and boy does it make me feel bad. I’ll punish him double, once for each of us.”
Not a failure: “Despite our best efforts to raise him right, my kid exercised his free will and is now a druggie, an alcoholic, a criminal.”
Failure: “His name is forbidden in my home.”
Not a failure: “We are too broke to give our kids everything their friends have.”
Failure: “I must do everything possible to get more money, so we can be happy.”
Not a failure: “My child is gay.”
Failure: “I refuse to have gay children, so either the kid or the gayness has got to go.”
Not a failure: “My child has left the Church.”
Failure: “I raise Catholic children, so I guess this is no longer my child. How could he betray Me this way?”
Not a failure: “I just said or did exactly the wrong thing to my kid.”
Failure: “We must never speak of this again.”
A version of this post was originally published in 2014.
Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.
But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate anxiety and help kids even learn to look forward to confession . . .
These feelings of helplessness are actually a good thing, assuming you all survive. It’s a good thing to realize that you’re no expert, you’re no genius, you’re no bottomless font of wisdom. It’s a good thing to realize that your child is not a robot to be programmed, or an empty sack to be filled with whatever habits and preferences and traits and skills you choose.
What your child is is a unique, irreplaceable immortal being with terrifyingly free will and a lot less self-knowledge than he had a few years ago; and what you are is someone who loves your kid and wants the best for him, but is so far from being in control, it’s laughable.
People simply do not take your work seriously if you’re not wearing a uniform or sitting in an office. They can see you there, flagrantly sitting at home like an enormous slug. Even though they intellectually know that you are earning a living, they just can’t get past the notion that, since you are at home, your entire reason for existing is to serve them; and when you have performed the required service, you probably back into a storage closet and power down like an off-duty robot until someone needs you to fix the Wii or find their math book or explain the Vietnam war or unclog the toilet. Or make some food. Not this food! Food we like better! Cut into triangles!
My children range in age from 20 to three – almost a big enough span to comprise two generations. Naturally, the older kids think the younger ones get away with murder. The love to talk about how strict I used to be, how inflexible, how unreasonable.
And they’re right. It’s not just that I had more energy to hold the reins tightly when I was a young mom; it’s that I had a very different idea of how kids should be treated. I was wrong about a lot of things, and much of that wrongness stemmed from wrong ideas I had about myself – about my self-worth, about my value, about my capabilities.
It was a kindly old priest in Coke bottle glasses, a matter-of-fact French Canadian servant of God with no desire to act as Grand Inquisitor. But his simple, basic questions did the job they were intended to do: They let us know that this was real, this was serious, and our responsibility was not going to go away.
A child who is told he is stupid will always believe he is stupid. A child who is told she’s a failure will always believe she’s a failure. When these insults and hostility come from the very heart of the family, they take root.
All parents, sooner or later, come up against a problem they can’t solve. This is where we recall that parenting is about self-sacrifice, and sometimes it’s our pride that needs sacrificing. Your child is more important than your self-image. Your job is to fight for him or her, and that includes enlisting help.
Whenever my daughter Irene isn’t where we expect her to be, someone says darkly, “She’s probably sitting on the floor, playing with blocks.”
This is because, several years ago, she insisted on being the one to run into the city library and fetch the middle school kid while the rest of us waited in the car. And waited. And waited.
It was punishingly hot, everyone was hungry and angry, the baby was screaming, and I was too low on gas to run the air conditioner. I didn’t have enough big kids in the car to stay with the little kids while I went in myself, and I didn’t have a quarter for the parking meter anyway, so we had to wait. And wait. And wait. No kid. Eventually I sent a second kid in to find the kid I had sent in to find the other kid; and when that didn’t work I sent a third — no, a fourth kid in. We had all read the story about Clever Elsie, and nobody liked where this was headed.
But no, just a few minutes after he had gone in, that last kid emerged with all the others in tow. He reported indignantly that he had found Irene just sitting on the floor playing with blocks. Just playing with blocks, while we waited!
Irene, of course, defended herself. There was a very good reason! She couldn’t find the first kid, and she looked in the computer alcoves, in the manga section, by the fish tanks, everywhere a boy might be. Having done her due diligence, she then sensibly wondered if maybe he was in the bathroom in the children’s room upstairs. But the bathroom door was locked, and no one answered when she knocked — a telltale sign that it must be her brother inside, because he never answers when you knock. So she plopped herself down on the floor outside the bathroom and passed the time by playing with blocks until the unreliable crumb would decide to stroll himself out and stop inconveniencing everyone.
What she didn’t know was that the children’s bathroom is always locked, and you have to go ask the librarian for a key. No one answered her knock because no one was in there. So there she was, blissfully building little castles outside an empty bathroom, while the rest of us steamed our brains out in the car while the baby screamed and screamed. And we’ll never let her forget it.
We cherish memories of abject failure by our loves ones, even more than memories of perfect birthday cakes, golden hours reading fairy tales, or happy meals with laughter and song. Why? Because twisting the knife is fun! I don’t know. I can only imagine how many happy evenings Adam whiled away, reminding Eve of that one tiny little mistake she made that one time, years and years and years ago. Never mind all the good times, all the hard work and dedication, all the nice loincloths she made for the family. No one wants to reminisce about the day she invented lentils. Nope, it’s always, “Hey, remember that time you doomed mankind?”
Parents, especially, are popular targets of this selective memory. My kids, Irene included, live for the chance to remind me that I once picked up the kids at school and drove all the way into the next town before I even noticed I forgot Sophia. On Valentine’s Day! They always forget that I was nine months pregnant and it was a certifiable miracle I could remember how to use a steering wheel, much less count heads, and I did go back and get her. It’s not as if I just washed my hands of her and got on with my life without Sophia like some kind of bad parent. Nope, it’s just The Day Mama Forgot Sophia . . . On Valentine’s Day. And they’ll never let me forget it.
Then there was the time when my own parents went into what I remember as a long and completely unreasonable tirade about careless children who knock over their cups at meals, causing untold frustration and inconvenience for everyone else at the table, who just want to sit down at the end of a long day and enjoy a meal without having to jump up and clean something every five minutes, if people would just be a little bit more considerate and take the extra two seconds it takes to move their cup out of the way of their elbow so it doesn’t get knoc–
and then, of course, my father knocked over his cup, and my mother knocked over her cup. It was glorious. Glorious. And we’ll never let them forget it.
Now you tell me about your public shame. I want to know what they’ll never forget about you!