5 Parenting Mistakes I've Made in the Past Week
And how I've tried to fix them.
Posted March 28, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
As a child psychologist and parenting coach, my number one piece of advice over the past two weeks has been to keep our expectations in check and to be gentle with ourselves when our attempts to adjust to this new normal — as parents, professionals, partners, and friends — fall short. After all, we are being asked to do the impossible: to parent, work, run our households, and take care of ourselves all at the same time, and all under tremendously stressful circumstances.
How do we do that? How do we foster self-compassion when it feels like so many others are doing a better job of getting through this? Because even if we know, intellectually, that that's not the case, that knowledge doesn't protect us from the self-doubt, at best, and self-flagellation, at worst, that have become so familiar since this whole ordeal started.
What might help? Openness about our struggles, honesty about the many and various ways we are — unavoidably — screwing up each and every day. In vulnerability there is connection, and it's the connection that is going to get us through. And so — as the parenting "expert" — I'll go first. Here is a list (far from exhaustive!) of five mistakes I've made this past week alone:
1. I have walked around the house sighing loudly, waiting not only for my kids to notice, but also for them to understand my meaning (which was, of course, that I am suffering greatly and feeling highly unappreciated under these new circumstances).
Why is this a mistake? Two reasons. First, it is the epitome of indirect communication, of attempting to use non-verbal communication as a way of expressing my feelings in the hopes that my children are fluent in "Mom Sigh." They are not. Just as I am not fluent in "Toddler Grunt." If we want our children to learn to express their feelings — even, or perhaps especially, the difficult ones — using words, then we need to do the same.
Second, it is not my children's job to comfort me during this time, to meet my emotional needs. As I have said before, that is a one-way street, and there are significant risks that stem from these roles being reversed. There will be many times in the upcoming weeks that I feel exhausted, frustrated, lonely, and unappreciated. Feelings like these are a sign that I need to do something to take care of myself or to reach out to another grown-up for support. They do not mean that my children are somehow being derelict in their duty.
2. I have gotten sucked into believing it was about the gummies, when of course it wasn't about the gummies.
Why is this a mistake? Because everyone's reactions to everything these days are layered, and that applies to our kids most of all. In this particular case, I went back and forth with my increasingly upset, melting down 4-year-old about gummies – whether he could have them in the first place, what kinds we had versus what kind he wanted, whether he could open a brand new packet after deciding he didn't like the ones we tried first — for a solid 10 minutes or so, before remembering that oh wait, we're all stuck in the house due to a global pandemic.
Children reveal their anxiety, frustration, and just plain blech-iness through behavior: defiance, moodiness, irritability. And so, although it's never a great idea to get into power struggles with 4-year-olds, these days that's especially true. I ended up sitting next to my son on the floor: "I agree. There is absolutely no answer to this gummy problem because everything just stinks right now." He nodded and put his head in my lap. Next time, I'll start there.
3. I have snapped at my son for spilling the maple syrup, then — when he asked why — shot back, "Why do you think?"
Why is this a mistake? Because it was an accident, and my response was unkind, and my second response was even more unkind. This was not one of my prouder moments.
What should I have done? Just the obvious: be a bit more understanding and patient. That's not always going to be possible, however, especially not these days. And so when I show my kids my less-than-best self, I can apologize, own my humanity, model humility. Those who read this blog regularly know that I always come back to rupture and repair as a foundation of a healthy parent-child relationship, and to a wide range of positive child outcomes. A possible silver lining in the many ruptures coming down the pike? Each of them will be an opportunity for repair.
4. I have worried about my kindergartener's academic achievement (or lack thereof).
Why is this a mistake? Because my rational self knows that academics are not the priority right now — especially, although not exclusively, for young kids. Learning happens all the time, and in any event, young children learn most through play anyway. It is not academic achievement that will insulate our children from trauma during this time (i.e., from their nervous systems interpreting these new and unfamiliar circumstances as a threat), but rather, the strong connections they have with their caregivers. This is a fact borne out in science again and again.
And yet, there I was, scrolling through social media, and stressing out that my 6-year-old has spent more time this week playing on his iPad than practicing his "trick words." What should I have done? The moment I felt the familiar wave of social-media-induced anxiety, the compare-and-despair, I should have logged off, taken a break from my phone, felt my feet on the ground, and taken three slow, deep breaths. I've been working on that.
5. I have been hard on myself about all of the above, and haven't granted myself permission to make mistakes — to be human and imperfect.
Why is this a mistake? Because beating up on myself isn't going to help anyone, least of all me and my family. In fact, research shows that people who practice self-compassion — who treat themselves with kindness — are less likely to be depressed, anxious, and stressed, and more likely to be happy, resilient, and optimistic. I don't know about you, but I'll do whatever I can these days to optimize those last three.
Would I ever tell my best friend that she is somehow not enough right now, that her best efforts don't mean anything, given all the mistakes she's making? Would I beat up on her for messing up, for not getting it all right? For relying on screens too much, or being too impatient with her kids, or allowing non-stop snacking on less-than-healthy foods?
Of course I wouldn't. I'd tell her she's a rock star Mama. I'd remind her that of course she's not perfect at any of this — we're in uncharted territory, and, just as important, there's no such thing as perfect when it comes to parenting. I'd give her a hug (an air hug, from six feet away). I'd implore her to prioritize getting some rest, taking care of herself. I'd tell her with conviction that her children are tremendously lucky to have her.
And so that's the advice I'm giving myself. One quarantined day at a time.