Despite this being one of the safest times ever to be a child, children seem to have a lot less freedom now than they used to. Despite how much smaller the world has become due to ease of travel and communication, it seems to have become a lonelier place for many. Despite the easy access to information about every kind of topic online, parenting seems to only be getting harder instead of easier as we’re overloaded with advice on how to parent our kids ‘the right way’. For every picture-perfect family moment captured on Facebook or Instagram to show the world how great things are, there are many many darker moments that we don’t rush to share with others. Parents beat themselves up at the end of the day about what they are or aren’t doing. What they could be doing better. What they feel they should be doing better. If we were a bit less informed, we might actually be happier with our parenting.
I do it myself. We have a bad morning (or even a whole day) where you can tell as soon as the sun rises that everything is inexorably moving towards a tipping point where the toddler will lose it, the adults will lose it, and it all goes horribly wrong. Hindsight is great, but even with foresight, it’s a losing battle some days. I try, but I often fail. It’s like trying to stop the dark thunderstorm on the horizon that will first clear the air, before bringing the sun back into the sky again. We’re all human. We all get tired, feel out of sorts, do silly things. We make excuses for our kids and try to accept their quirks and lack of control. They’re still children after all, still learning. Yet we’re quick to measure ourselves against lofty ideals for our own behaviour. It’s easy to forget that as adults, and particularly as parents, we’re also still learning. Being a kid is tough in this world, but being a parent is also tough!
Every day is a fresh start. But so is every hour, and every minute of the day (or night) if you decide it should be. When we lose our temper, or don’t handle a situation as well as we could have, the best possible thing we can do for our kids and ourselves is to own it, admit it (apologise where needed), draw a line, and move on. Relentlessly chastising ourselves doesn’t help break the bad patterns. It just increases our stress levels and makes it even harder to keep a cool head the next time. So what if we’re not perfect parents? Should we really strive to be? Is that what our children really need us to be?
Just like us, our children try and will regularly fail. We need to model the kind of behaviour we want our children to ultimately develop as they grow up. If my son never sees me angry or sad or frustrated, he’s going to think that these kinds of emotions are abnormal or wrong. That he should be ashamed or afraid of them, and hide them away from the world. No matter how often I might tell him that his emotional outbursts are okay, that he needs help to learn how to deal with the big emotions he feels, he’s not really going to believe that. Not if I apparently don’t have them, or worse yet, pretend I don’t when my behaviour shows that I clearly do. He needs me to acknowledge when I’m having a bad day, apologise to him if I lost my temper, and see me forgive myself for having flaws and failing to overcome them. Only then can he do the same thing and feel that it’s okay to be and feel himself.
One of the hardest things to do is teach our children to manage their emotional health well. The toughest part of that lesson is to learn how to do it ourselves. I tell my son that it’s okay if he wasn’t at his best yesterday, today, or tomorrow. His parents still love him, he’s still a good and worthwhile person. He doesn’t have to be happy and on his best behaviour all the time. In fact it wouldn’t be normal if he was. He doesn’t have to succeed at everything he does to be a success. The important thing is to try, and to understand that it’s ok to fail. I need to be okay with applying the same attitude to myself. To actually show him that it’s ok to fail. It’s ok to not be ok. To give him permission to be angry, tired, sad, frustrated, and not even know why. That it’s good to express these feelings to others. It actually helps to release them and not bottle them up inside to fester. This is especially important for him to learn when the suicide rate of young males is high enough to make me worry about his future.
We have our bad days. But we also have days when out of the blue, my toddler walks over to me and tells me he needs a cuddle. No reason. He just needs a cuddle, and knows he will get that unconditional emotional support if he asks for it. That alone can stave off a potentially bad day. Other days are busy and tantrum-filled. I’m not proud of myself when I get impatient and cross, or end up shouting back at him. But when both our tempers have cooled, we sit together and agree that one or both of us were grumpy and cranky today. Even though we didn’t want to be. That things went wrong for us. “I want to be happy”, he says, and my heart breaks a little for him. But it’s okay when he isn’t. Life isn’t always how we want it to be, and neither are we.
We feel a bit better now. And for every not so great moment we have, we will have plenty more happy times. We’ll try and fail again another day, but there’s value to doing that. We just have to let ourselves be and feel what whatever we need to each moment of each day, and trust that that’s enough. That’s how we succeed. By allowing ourselves to also fail.