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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.