By: Jenna Walenga (Estimated reading time: 4 minutes )
Let’s face facts: You won’t do everything perfectly as a parent. You will do many things very well. You may even do most things to a very high standard. But you will make mistakes.
We may have jobs, partners, bills, mothers-in-law, wars, pandemics, and so much more to mentally and emotionally juggle every day. It makes perfect sense that sometimes you won’t have the capacity to wait 15 minutes for your 4-year-old to get their shoes on or rock your baby for 45 minutes while they scream in your face. And in those moments, you might snap, yell, or make countless other “not your best moment” parenting moves.
But there’s good news. Not only is that okay, but it’s better for your children to have a human for a parent.
First off, perfectionism doesn’t serve anyone. It makes life harder. It causes stress and anxiety as you try to meet an impossible standard. If as a parent you refuse to show anything but the perfect version of yourself to your children, you are passing this impossible standard on to them. In reality, you want your children to be imperfect. You offer them compassion for big emotions and accidents. You encourage them to be brave, to try new things and to fail. But young children learn from what they see. If you are unable to offer yourself grace, they will struggle to give it to themselves as well.
Secondly, making mistakes gives us the opportunity to repair. Owning your mistakes and apologizing to your children teaches them responsibility and empathy. It also tells your child that they matter. When we can turn to them and say, “It must have been really scary when I yelled. I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that,” we validate their feelings and experiences, instead of justifying our actions at their expense. We teach them to make amends.
Young children may resist touching base with a friend they have hit because they feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. And forcing an apology on the spot can make them feel cornered and ashamed. If they apologize just to make you happy, they are learning people pleasing, rather than true empathy. Want to raise a child who cares for others and can navigate the discomfort? Show them you are sorry when you have hurt them.
Here are some DO’s and DON’Ts to turn parenting mistakes into growth opportunities:
DON’T justify your actions or make your child responsible for your feelings. Phrases like, “If you would hurry up, I wouldn’t get so mad.” Or “You wouldn’t listen to me, so I felt frustrated” shift the blame, and instill good behavior as a requirement of security.
DON’T demand forgiveness. Forgiveness is often mis-taught to children as a required response to an apology, but it actually has more to do with processing our own feelings, which may take time.
DON’T use this as an opportunity to correct their behavior. Your apology is not conditional. It isn’t something you are trading for improved behavior. Leave some space between the conversations and come back to the behavior issue later, especially if you are able to witness the behavior without your triggered response.
DO mend quickly. As soon as you know it’s a mistake, fix it. Keep it simple. “I’m sorry I said that. I would never leave without you.” Digging in your heels or ignoring it until later only does more harm.
DO reconnect later. Even if you already apologized in the moment, it’s okay to return to what happened once everyone has calmed down for a deeper conversation. “I want you to know I’ll always be here for you, even when you don’t put your shoes on. You don’t deserve to be spoken to like that.”
DO own your feelings. “I was so angry.”
DO check in and validate their feelings. “It must have been scary for me to say I was leaving without you. That makes sense.” Or “I noticed you looked upset when I said that. What were you feeling?”
DO spell out self-compassion. “I made a mistake just like sometimes you make mistakes. You know what? I love you. Even when you make mistakes. I feel bad when I make mistakes, but I know I’m not a bad person.”
DO apologize to babies and toddlers. Rebuilding security matters. Don’t skip the apology because you think they can’t understand it.
DO forgive yourself. Mistakes will happen. Beating yourself up about it or spiraling mentally will deplete you further and probably make it more likely you’ll do it again. Instead, accept that you are human, and try to love yourself as you would your child.
So, when things go wrong — and they certainly will — shift your perspective from shame and regret to seeing the opportunity to show your kid the truth. Nobody is perfect, and nobody expects them to be. No one expects you to be either.
Some other resources on self-compassion:
- The free Insight Timer app has countless meditations and practices to fit into any schedule and even a special section for parents.
- The book Raising a Secure Child highlights the ways being aware of our own triggers is key to helping our kids develop healthily (and that perfect parenting doesn’t exist!).
- This podcast episode features a well-known researcher on self-compassion and discusses how to release self-criticism and find self-compassion.
- This Ted Talk features the same researcher discussing the space between self-esteem and self-compassion.
- Kim John Payne’s book Being at Your Best When Your Kids Are at Their Worst provides information on practical compassion in parenting.