The 7 Most Cleverly Disguised Pitfalls of Parenting

When our first child was born, I was terrified, because I thought I had no idea how to be a parent. I’m no longer as scared as I used to be, but I think that’s just because I’ve gotten used to being wrong. Turns out, you don’t really learn how to parent; you gradually learn, one day and mistake at a time, how not to parent. Now, twelve years later—almost a whole teenager later—I know I’ve fallen into some pretty common parenting traps. At least seven of them:


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  1. I believe I have control over how my kids turn out. It’s a natural thing to believe. After all, when you’re in charge of a project, you’re responsible for the outcome, right? The thing is, kids aren’t projects; they’re people. They’re human beings with their own wishes and desires and biology and personality and beliefs and will and choices and experiences. Yes, I need to be there, to see them and set limits and guide them the best I can. But parenting is a lot like throwing a Frisbee in a windstorm—you can make a perfect throw, but it might end up anywhere.
  2. I worry about what other people think of my kids. Good parents equal good kids, right? So, I worry about what you think when my kids say something weird or do something strange, as kids tend to do. Yet, I’ve been noticing, my kids don’t need help worrying about what people think of them. Life is giving them plenty of chances to do that for themselves. Instead, I need to remind them: peace can’t be found in the opinions of others; it only be found when, finally, we have a loving opinion of ourselves.
  3. I’ve demanded unequivocal obedience from my kids. Obedience is a good thing and it has its place. In fact, it has many places. But there are also places in which disobedience is terribly important. When a coach tells you to cheat. When a boyfriend tells you he doesn’t need a condom. When your buddy wants to steal the new video game from Target. When someone you love tells you that you’re unlovable. Ironically, kids need to learn how to rebel at times, as well. Nowadays, I try to help them choose their rebellions wisely.
  4. I tell myself my parenting is mostly altruistic when, really, it is mostly an effort to heal my own wounds. The truth is, the hurt I try to prevent in my own kids is the hurt I already carry in me. By trying to give them what I didn’t have, I’m trying to take away from them the pain I did have—my loneliness, for instance. Good parenting is never completely altruistic. It is always, also, a way of healing ourselves. And that’s okay. You have to be guided by some instinct as a parent; redeeming your broken past is a pretty good one.
  5. When someone I respect parents differently, I get terrified I’m doing it wrong. Sometimes I forget, we’re all making it up as we go. The existence of one opinion or approach doesn’t invalidate the existence of another. In my best moments, I borrow what I can from another parent’s way of doing things, and I try to loan them my perspective, without needing them to buy into it. Sometimes, something better actually emerges, for both of us.
  6. I thought I needed to be a friend to my kids. The truth is, my kids have approximately seven billion people who can be their friend, but they only have me to be their father. Over the years, I’ve realized they want structure, rules, and limits. From me. Because I care enough to give them those hard things, in the most loving way possible. They don’t need a friend; they need a guide, and a witness (a.k.a., a parent).
  7. I’ve tried to give my kids a better life than I had. Actually, this is the mistake I regret least. It’s good to want something better for our kids. What I regret is taking it too far. I’ve tried to prevent struggle, risk, failure, and injury. But protecting them like that doesn’t create a better life; it creates a fragile life. So, I’ve stopped wishing for their success, and I’ve started wishing for their strength. In the face of whatever comes.

Now that I’m more aware of some of the mistakes I’ve been making, I try to make them less. But I try not to fool myself into believing I’m doing it all right, either, because I was wrong before, so who’s to say I’m not wrong now? And mostly I just try to be a little less terrified and trust that uncertainty, mistakes, and regret are an important space, because they are the space in which grace can grow.

And grace is never a mistake.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

13 thoughts on “The 7 Most Cleverly Disguised Pitfalls of Parenting

  1. I read this blog and admit to each and every one of these things. Some are presently happening like #4 my almost teenage daughter is getting verbally put down by a peer, I got bullied. The other evening at dinner my husband and I were giving her advice and before you know it, I was heated, balling my fists proclaiming “you tell her…..” oops HA! I cracked up at #5 because when my kids were little, especially, and I would join play groups if someone said something differently than me, I ASSumed they were right! I used to call them “Barney Moms” they would speak in a sing-songy voice 🙂 “Are those really the words you wanted to use when asking Johnny for that toy?” HA! Still now, I hear what other parents do and question myself. My husband and I definitely eagerly participate in #7 and were just speaking about how struggle, challenge, lack (the right kind), etc. builds said strength, character AND resilience. Oh and OMGOSH how many times have I turned red or blushed or tried to cover up something my kids have said or done, ZINGAH on #2! Hit this one out of the ballpark again and at the right timing of course! Thank you and you are right “Grace is never a mistake.” That just happens to be my oldest daughter’s name 😉

    • I know it, Shannon, when I hear about kids mistreating my kids, I get a little crazy and then eventually realize I’m not just defending them, I’m also finally defending little me, which explains all the extra emotion, and then I can settle down and start eating my tacos again. : ) You’re comment brought me joy. Thanks for that.

  2. “… trust that uncertainty, mistakes, and regret are an important space…” True, especially in parenting. No one gets to make ALL of the correct decisions. I like the list & the topic. Our kids are 16 & 17 and parenting them has been a heckuva ride; a ride I’ve enjoyed. Some thoughts:

    #4 – I became a much better parent as I was able to let go of my real/imagined grudges I had towards my parents. Or maybe not “Better”, the jury is still out. But I was able to relax and be myself. One of the best parenting compliments I’ve ever received was from my
    Mom: “You didn’t make some of the mistakes we made; you came up with
    your own.” I can live with that.

    #5 – “I’m terrified I’m doing it wrong” Funny how often that comes up in life…

    #6 I might be friends with my kids; just not in the manner you’re talking about. But I could be wrong. I do like our relationship, we get along very well. Maybe a new definition of friendship is needed? Wanting someone to like me and trying to manipulate that outcome doesn’t mean I’m their friend. My best friends let me know unequivocally when I need to pull my head out and make a change

    #7 I worry that We’ve been too easy on them, that they haven’t had to face enough adversity to fully develop. *SIGH* But, it is done and I’m counting on life to provide the adversity needed to fully form a human being. My wife and I have decided to provide safe harbor.

    On that note:
    I’m grateful my wife and I are doing this together.

    I’m glad I’m “Dad” instead of “Mom’. Both roles have their challenges, but the phrase “weight of the world” was invented to describe the emotional burden my wife has given herself around her role as a mother. She has my respect but I’m glad I’m don’t have to haul that around.

    Thanks for the topic, Kelly. You’re doing good work with this blog. It is a good start on a Wednesday morning.

    • Mike, your comment was a good way to start my Wednesday afternoon. Yep, to all of it, especially all the nuance you pulled out and added. “You came up with your own.” Ha! There’s a gift in being able to talk with your parents about the mistakes you’ve both made as parents. And this whole comment is a gift to all of us. Thanks again, Mike.

  3. Right on. How grateful I am that there are so many right ways to parent kids, that we have so much good company when we get parts of the process wrong, and that our kids find their paths to strength even when our squeamish hearts want to bubblewrap them for the hike.
    Relax; nothing’s under control. Thank goodness for grace.

    • “Relax, nothing’s under control.” How do you do that every week, Shel?! You boil my post down into a single sentence or two that helps me to understand what I wrote better. : )

  4. Too bad babies and big kids aren’t a package deal in the first place! Our adult children whisper things back to us that I never knew mattered as much as they did. Hearing their perspective is especially handy when we feel we’re bumbling everything with our younger crew. When our thirteen year old was navigating some rough waters three weeks ago, the words of our twenty-two year old helped encourage our hearts. He’d relayed a story of grace that I’d forgotten. One day in high school, I’d received a rough call about him. I raced to the office, called him out of class immediately and took him to coffee. He said that coffee time was his lifeline to know the overarching truth, that he was loved regardless of what he did. Grace frees that way doesn’t it. Grace over us parents and grace over our children changes everything. Thank you Kelly for combining grace and truth in your encouragement. 🙂

    • Wow, Grace! What a blessing to have older kids being able to speak into the parenting of your younger kids. I actually don’t see why we couldn’t start this right now with our 12 yo. I’m sure he has all sorts of wisdom to impart about how we handle our 8 and 6 year old. Thank you!

      • Yes! Do!
        Sometimes we even have our little guys call the big kids if they feel particularly disgruntled about a decision or consequence. On those occasions, the outcome is always better with kind, wise siblings weighing in~and Dennis and my perspective broadens as well! Living in a community of grace ~ family God’s way. 🙂

  5. Thanks for the article! Your point 4 really makes me think..,, my own wounds…. And to build on your point 1 – for the reason you mentioned, I think parenting is particularly frustrating for business-trained people (especially the successful ones in the technical domains like engineering). We are ‘normed’ to be responsible for (and hopefully have control over) the ‘project’ outcome. For the successful ones, experience has confirmed them repeatedly that such approach works.

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