The Biggest Mistake We Make as Parents

My oldest daughter was recently diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder. (Don’t worry—I asked her permission to post this.)

Being diagnosed and realizing you’re not crazy, that there really is something going on inside you, would probably make most people feel better. (In Ry’s case we were told that her fight-or-flight mechanism is wonky, so what wouldn’t bother some people often sends her into panic mode.)

But a diagnosis didn’t make Ry feel better.

It didn’t make me feel better, either.

As many parents would be prone to do, I immediately started looking for the cause of my daughter’s issues.

What had I done to make her so anxious? What had I not done to make her feel safe?

Was it the tornado she encountered at the mall when she was in preschool? The one that sent people cowering under water fountains as lights went out and the wind blew like crazy?

Was it moving so many times? Did Clayford and I argue too much in front of her?

Or did it go even further back, to when she was a tiny baby with a constantly hurting tummy and a fairly new mama who was at her wits end?

The answer is as simple (and complicated) as this:

I don’t know.

My oldest son is not affectionate. He used to laugh and do all kinds of silly things around the house, and now my husband and I get muffled, one-word answers from a closed bedroom door and a great deal  of time spent away from us.

Is this normal? Is this a boy thing? A teenager thing, or is something deeper going on?

I don’t know.

My second son might be the antichrist. We’re not quite sure—he has his nice moments, and he gives good kisses and hugs—but he also drops potty words like one might say a, and or the. And he has this weird scream that’s a cross between a cat clawing a chalkboard and a dying dinosaur screeching his last breath.

Okay, so Bear is not the antichrist. But still, I ask myself:

Have I not disciplined him enough? Is he just a bad seed?

I don’t know. (And sorry, but I can’t speak ill of my Nims, other than her annoying habit of whining about EVERYTHING, which she gets from her mother, and her desire to dress like a boy 24/7. Other than that, she’s an angel. 😉 )

My husband and I have been far, far, far from perfect parents. We’ve made a jillion mistakes.

Some I’ll just out and out admit: We married too young. We’ve made some poor life decisions. We haven’t been fantastic about taking our kids to church every Sunday, or pushing them to do things outside of their comfort zone.

We’ve been lazy about many things. Wishy-washy.

Unintentional.

But I don’t think any of those traits have done the most damage to our children.

They’re not the greatest qualities of parenting, sure, but they’re nothing that a little filling up the love tank can’t fix.

However, I’ve made one parenting mistake that has done irreparable damage to my children:

I’ve parented my babies from a place of fear.

And this is a tough one to admit for all of us, really, not because we want to hide it, but because so often, we don’t even know when we’re doing it.

When my oldest was little, I believed he was only supposed to be one way: a sports-junkie like his father, ultra-competitive and fantastic at anything he tried.

I didn’t think this way because I’m ultra-competitive (far from it).

I didn’t think this way because I thought all boys should be just like their fathers.

I didn’t even necessarily think this was the way ALL boys should act.

But my FEAR was that my son would have a hard time in school, exactly like my brother did.

For whatever reason, my brother had been mercilessly bullied in school.

Maybe he brought it on himself and maybe not. Maybe it was a little of both.

Maybe my parents simply didn’t try hard enough to make us fit in. (I won’t even give a maybe to that—my parents were completely against us fitting in. It drove me crazy as a kid, but as an adult, I understand what they were trying to do. But FYI, parents, public school is not the place to test out parenting theories.)

What I equated my brother’s bullying with was being a non-athletic kid who didn’t “play the game.”

He didn’t do all the “boy” things (meaning sports) that boys were supposed to do.

I don’t have the time or energy to go into all the reasons he didn’t play sports. All I know is, I was damn confident my child was going to play every sport imaginable and be the best at it he could be.

The “he could be” part of it turned out to be that Bubba really didn’t like competing at all.

He didn’t mind a game of basketball in the yard, and he kept up pretty well on teams. He wasn’t chasing butterflies or digging in the dirt.

But playing sports just wasn’t in him.

I tell you with regret, I wasted YEARS pushing him to be something and somebody he wasn’t.

And I belittled him without intending to do so. What I thought was an attempt to make him better was actually criticism that broke his spirit.

I see that now. But sometimes it’s too late to fix what has been broken.

In my fearful desire to not have my daughter struggle with self-esteem the way I did, I threw her into every activity imaginable.

If she hated it, we quit and tried something else.

Over and over again, I tried and tried to mold her into what I could never be at that age: a confident girl, the envy of all her peers.

It never happened. Ry has struggled with her sense of self from day one; her anxiety has made confidence so much harder for her than for a “normal” child.

I’ve been angry with her over that. I’ve spoken harsh words, words that cannot be unsaid.

When I had my last two children, I swore I would not parent them in the way I parented my first two.

In my FEAR of not wanting to make the same mistakes, I’ve been so relaxed that discipline has fallen by the wayside. Actions I would have never allowed my first two to get away with have been allowed and ignored.

Am I oversharing? Possibly.

But I’m willing to bet there is someone reading right now who understands parenting from fear all too well.

And I think I know at least one reason it happens:

Many of us have childhoods we don’t recall with complete fondness.

There may have been good times, but there were some bad that in our tiny minds outweighed them: divorce trauma, abuse, poverty, perhaps.

Childhood circumstances have left us vulnerable to fear, to living from a place of constant worry that the rug will be pulled out from under our children the way it was for us.

I grew up in an overly-critical, slightly chaotic household.

I love my parents—we’ve come so far in our relationships—but it was what it was.

For the record, my parents were young and didn’t know what they were doing anymore than I did. I can’t fault them for what they couldn’t do or be.

And that’s exactly how parenting can unknowingly become a vicious cycle. Out of fear, we do one of two things, or a combination of both:

  • We try so hard to NOT be our parents that we live in a constant state of worry and anxiety, which trust me, our children absorb. Or…
  • We become so paralyzed with fear and anger that we parent from the same unintentional place that our own parents did.

Neither of these is good. Both put us on the defensive end of parenting, the place where we are always fighting battles, always struggling, always yelling, and constantly feeling as if we’ve failed.

I don’t know how you feel, but parenting in the dark shadows of fear has been exhausting me. I’ve been praying very hard this year that God would lead me to a place of parenting from GRACE.

Grace teaches you and your child that perfection isn’t possible, but the unconditional love of a parent (and in turn, their Creator) is.

Grace helps us accept that mistakes are a part of the journey and a setback doesn’t have to mean the end of a dream.

Grace molds our spirit into sweetness instead of bitterness. It allows us to extend that sweetness to others, friends and enemies alike.

Grace understands that every bad action has a consequence, but not every consequence has to permanently remain bad.

Grace allows all of us to be who God made us to be.

And Grace allows you, dear parent, to love your children exactly as they are.

In my parenting journey, Grace for me has meant a lot of apologizing.

And as a child who needed to hear I’m sorry (and did, by the way, because I have good parents), and as a parent who has needed to say it myself, I can promise you it makes a world of difference in your daily interactions with your child.

Our kids need to know that we are not perfect. And asking forgiveness when we mess up is the single best way to show it.

My goal this year is to give up parenting from fear.

To apologize and let go of my mistakes, to be gracious when my children make mistakes of their own, and to accept that God gave these babies to me for a purpose and a plan and has equipped me with the heart and mind I need to love them to the fullest. childhood

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