“I’m sorry I’m such a bad kid,” one of mine said to me a few years ago.
I was perplexed, didn’t know where that was coming from. This wasn’t the ‘I’m trying to make you feel bad for not letting me do something’ ploy my kids are good at (they do know how to push my guilt button), this was a real apology. I dug around a little to get a look at what might be going on in that tender heart.
“I just don’t do things right. I leave stuff on the floor, I cause trouble. Everyone’s always yelling at me – I’m just not a good kid.”
That would not not do. I wrapped my arms around my child and held on for a while. I breathed in the smell of their hair, and tried to let my love just permeate through all those bad feelings that were churning around. After a quick prayer I knew what to say.
“You’re right. You are messy. You do leave things on the floor. Sometimes you do things that do make more trouble for me, but THIS is what I signed up for. This is what I expect. Kids are supposed to mess up because they’re learning.”
“Really?” my child asked, surprised that any one would want someone to muck up their life.
“Yes, really. I love being a mom. I love the mess, and more importantly I love you all. I mess up all the time, too, you know. I don’t do everything right, either.” Then I pointed out all the things I can do wrong, and soon we got silly and laughed and moved on from that teary moment.
I came back around to it later, though, because I am not okay with my kids feeling shame because of who they are or what they’ve done.
That was about the time in my life that I walked away from nagging (although I still battle that), blaming, yelling, and completely blowing my lid because my kids were acting like kids. I walked away from expecting things to go like my favorite family sitcoms and began looking forward to the chaos that kids bring into your life*.
I had to get intentional about the way that I talked to my kids. Phrases like, “What were you thinking?” and “Why would you do that?” were nixed and replaced with, “How could you do this differently?” and “Well, what did you learn from this?” Sometimes I search for a list like this and print it off so that I can pull from there when I’m stretched too thin.
Now listen, we’re all human here on this planet, so sometimes even the best intentions go to waste.
That’s why I’m thankful for grace.
As a parent it is guaranteed that you will lose it every now and then. Even the best laid plans can get blown to heck when jobs, bills, medical issues, or flat tires enter into the picture. What I think is more important is what you do from there, where you go after the losing-it occurs.
I have known some parents don’t think that they should ever apologize to their kids, maybe because by apologizing they feel that they’re showing weakness. Apologizing to your kids is not wrong – it’s essential. I think it’s the most profound thing my parents ever did for me, and I have seen it change my relationship with my kids. A sincere acknowledgment of regretful behavior is a great start to ensuring that your kid doesn’t walk under a cloud of shame.
The difference between shame and guilt is this: shame convinces a kid of their wrongness as a human and leaves them defeated. Shame makes a kid feel like they’re carrying around a dirty secret; leaving laundry on the floor, eating all the cookies, not doing their chores, and fighting with siblings are not dirty secrets. It’s not a secret at all because it’s developmentally appropriate behavior.
I actually don’t believe in dirty secrets, but we can talk about that later.
I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection over and over for the past few months. Brown is a shame researcher and what she has to say on the subject has seriously changed the course of my life. Her research uncovered the truth that sharing the thing that shames us is the only way to break the cycle.
“Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgement. When shaming happens and we keep it locked up, it festers and grows. It consumes us. We need to share our experience. Shame happens between people, and it heals between people. If we can find someone who has earned the right to hear our story, we need to tell it. Shame loses power when spoken. In this way, we need to cultivate our story to let go of shame, and we need to develop shame resilience in order to cultivate our story.” ~ Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
She doesn’t mean on the internet, but with close trusted people. Your tribe. Your person. Whoever will say, “Man, that is the worst feeling. I’m so sorry that’s happened.”
That’s who I want to be to my kids. I want my husband and I to be the people they can share their shame with and have us say, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling that. I totally get it.”
I want to be that person even when- especially when – I have accidentally caused that shame.
It’s easy to start throwing perfectionism onto our children, especially if that’s something you do to yourself. Simply recognizing that tendency is a great first step in changing that. Maybe as you read this, you find yourself nodding, recognizing your own tendencies. Don’t get stuck there.
I know first hand how debilitating it can be to wake up to the fact that you’re doing something as a parent that you know is wrong, something contrary to what you believe is best for your kids. If that’s the case you need to find your person and break the shame-hold on you, because ain’t nobody got time for that.
Find someone to share your story with. I suggest you start with Jesus, who loves you more than anyone, and go from there.
Now go be brave, misfits.
Go get the book The Gifts of Imperfection. GAME CHANGER.
*Some of those issues have muscle memory and deep roots. I often have to work on not slipping back into that pattern because…human. If you can figure out the why of what you do you can change the how. If you have questions about that I’m happy to share a little more privately.