My plan was to have perfect children. I know, I know, it is not realistic, but that never stopped me from reaching for the ideal. In fact, I was certain that if I mothered hard enough, there was a chance at beating the odds ... you know, having the kids who are always respectful, who cringe about an A-minus, who are consistently kind, who do their hair and clean their room, who are a delight to be around, who give 100 percent at all times, who don’t like sugar, who take spirituality seriously, who compose their own music, who are star athletes and, in their spare time, start nonprofits and code on the side for Microsoft.
I’ve read about kids like these in books. I’ve seen them in movies. And, if I put all the Instagram and Facebook highlights of my friends’ children together, they also seem to exist in real life.
But here is what I have learned: Kids like this are not a reality for anyone, regardless of what you are led to believe, so learn to enjoy the children you have for who they are and repeat this phrase often: “My child is not perfect. Your child is not perfect. That is the way it is supposed to be.”
I guess what I am saying is that no amount of hard work will give you ideal children. Please continue to love and parent with as much vigor, knowledge, inspiration and energy as you can muster, but realize that all your efforts will not create children who never let you down.
Prepare yourself for this. Your son might throw a tantrum in the checkout line regardless of your exact regurgitation of love and logic patterns. Your daughter might need extra help with reading even if you read to her in your womb and practice every single night. Your son might consistently leave friends out even if you teach and model kindness at every turn. Your daughter might engage in dangerous behavior online, even if every tactic has been used to promote self-worth and encourage morality. Your son might drop out of college even if you hold a doctorate and are passionate about education.
This does not mean you have failed. You see, kids are not programmable robots who take in commands and execute. They come with personalities, likes, dislikes, talents and frailties, just like you and me. We are led to believe our children are a reflection of us or a conglomeration of what we have taught and been an example of, and, while that might be true at times, I can think of hundreds of instances where that hypothesis has been proved wrong.
You need only to look at the startling differences in siblings to see that similar genes and identical surroundings have endless combinations. As a younger mom, I once complimented a friend on what an amazing job she was doing with her teenage son. She wisely replied, “If I take credit for all the good, then I also have to take credit for all the bad. So each day I just try to show up for them and love and teach them the best way I know how. The rest is up to them.”
You can consider yourself a successful mother and dedicated father, even when the outcome looks pretty ugly at the moment. If you are loving, trying, forgiving, failing, learning and trying again, stop beating yourself up. Each of your children has a unique purpose in God’s grand plan, and, surprisingly enough, we can’t always see the outcome while battling in the trenches.
It’s good to remind ourselves that children are supposed to make mistakes and test boundaries and make their parents lose sleep at night. If we wallowed, pouted and took it personally every time our child didn’t obey or excel, parenting would be a rather miserable endeavor.
So, instead, try to enjoy your children. Celebrate who they are without banging your head about who they are not. Mentor them and guide them, but value their input and then give them a little space to become. Have fun with them, get interested in the things they love, laugh at their jokes and be present even when it seems they don’t care. Don’t throw in the towel at 6, 16 or 26. There is a lot of life to live and an incredible amount of time for them to grow into their own greatness. And to the parents reading this who are quietly grateful for their rock-star children, remove your blinders. I sat next to a mom one day who couldn’t say enough good things about her child: so kind, responsible, smart, talented, trustworthy and an absolute joy. The very next day, another mom complained to me about the same child, emphasizing how hard, exclusive and mean and that kid had been all year.
You will see your child’s world through their lens, which is often filtered to cast them in the most flattering light. I’ve watched the best kid I know completely shun someone who needed a friend. I’ve heard good teenagers use words that floored me and been shocked by the disrespect and ingratitude shown by really GREAT kids from really stellar homes.
Sometimes our parental goggles are a little too rosy. So get comfortable with reality, get to know your child and do your best to withhold judgment of other kids and parents and “what must be being taught at home.” If a child or teen seems to be struggling, don’t walk away or write them off. Catch a stone for them and see what you can do to help or show a little extra love during a rough patch. I promise you will be eternally grateful for that same grace one day, because we are all going to fall short, miss something, or fail. After all, parents are human too.
And if you really have been fortunate enough to get one of those rare perfect-on-the-outside children, will you do me a favor and have this conversation with them tonight?
“You are an amazing kid, but we know you are not perfect. You have made mistakes and you will continue to make more because you are mortal. You will do things you are not proud of. You will see something inappropriate and like it. You will fail a test and forget to turn something in. You will say words you know you shouldn’t, laugh at a mean joke and be a jerk when you should be kind. We already know this will happen, and we love you anyway.
“So please tell us when you are struggling and need help. We will still think you are phenomenal. The worst thing you can do is keep hard things hidden. They will eat you up inside. Open up and admit when you are wrong; tell us when you are weak and how we can help you. There will be consequences, but you can get through them and you will come out on the other side so much better and so much stronger. Please know that you can always be forgiven, by us and by God; you have a million chances to make things right and you can work through anything. We are always here for you. So while we appreciate your awesomeness, we would never expect you to be perfect.”
This will take a weight off their shoulders and perhaps start a conversation that needs to happen. Letting go of unrealistic expectations for ourselves and our children brings about a healthy openness and allows everyone the freedom to become something more. And this closeness, this acceptance, this connection just might remind you that reality, with all its ugliness and heartache, can somehow transform life into a really beautiful thing.