Parenting is hard. I will be the first to admit that I make a lot of mistakes, among them that I say things that I told myself I would never say to my kids. Lately, I’ve been practicing what I call mindful parenting. I have been trying to remain acutely aware of the way I am interacting with my kids and how I am communicating with them. What I have discovered through this awareness is that I have a lot of work to do. So I’m starting with this.
Here are five phrases that I am going to eliminate from my parenting vocabulary:
1. What is wrong with you?
I heard this a lot growing up and vowed I would never speak those words to my kids. The first time it slipped out of my mouth, it felt like I had an out-of-body experience. It was as if I was sitting in the corner of the room watching myself say those words to my child as he looked at me with a look that I had seen hundreds of times. It was the look that I used to see every time I looked at myself in the mirror. It was a look of shame. And I was absolutely horrified that I had been the source of that shame.
I wish I could say it only happened once, but I’ve found myself saying this and other phrases that communicate shame just as clearly at least a handful of times. It’s so easy for me, when my child isn’t listening or when he’s doing something that he knows is wrong, to yell out, “What’s the matter with you?”
I often don’t understand why it is so hard for my children to follow simple instructions or to listen the first time when they know that consequences will ensue if they don’t. But my inability to comprehend what happens inside of a 3- or 4-year-old brain does not justify shaming my child. Nothing will ever justify shaming my child. My job as a parent is to build them up so that when the world tears them down, as it inevitably will, they are left with solid ground to stand on. Each time I communicate shame to my children, I am chipping away at their foundations and shaving off a piece of their armor. I don’t want to be that parent. I want to be a parent who gives my children a chance in this big, brutal world, not one who destroys them before they even enter it.
2. Why can’t you be more like your brother?
Granted, I have never said those exact words, but regardless of how it’s relayed, the message is the same. I get frustrated with one child, so I highlight whatever good behavior their brother is showing in an attempt to motivate them to change their behavior. What I’m really doing though, instead of motivating, is tampering with their sense of self by inviting competition and comparison into our home.
I have three very different boys with three very different personalities. Their brains are uniquely theirs, and each one processes information in his own distinct way. They each have strengths and excel in different areas. By comparing them to each other, I am essentially communicating preference or superiority of one child over the others.
This comparing just has to stop. We are a society that lives and breathes for a competitive edge—for something that makes us better than, smarter than, faster than everyone else. The way we define ourselves, our value, our worth, is entirely dependent upon our relation to others. Comparing my children to each other is fostering a dependence that strips them entirely of their autonomy, weakens their innate strengths and downplays their uniquenesses.
3. You are making me so angry.
This is just not true. No one makes me angry. Anger is an emotion that I feel based on several factors. External stimuli, such as my children throwing balls at windows, is just one of the factors that contributes to my feeling of anger. Other factors include (but are not limited to) my prior mental and emotional state, stress level, amount of sleep I got the night before, my spiritual condition, whether or not I had eaten within the past two hours, level of physical pain and the amount of caffeine present in my system.
My kids do not make me angry. Something they do might contribute to the emotion that I feel, but what I do with that emotion is up to me. I can choose to react with an angry response, such as yelling, or I can choose to process my anger in a healthier way that doesn’t involve my children.
4. Mommy’s sad. Come give me a hug.
This innocent statement might seem harmless at first, but its implications are dangerous. I am inadvertently telling my children that my emotions are their responsibility, that they are somehow obliged to fix or change how I feel, that the duration of my emotional state depends on an action that they are willing to take. This message is setting them up for hardship in future relationships. It is planting the seeds of codependency.
I am the only one responsible for my emotions. My kids, my husband and my friends are not responsible for making me feel okay. They can be sources of support and playing with my kids can be an effective coping skill, but ultimately it’s up to me to take action.
5. If you are going to play with this, you need to play with it the right way.
There is no right or wrong way to play. The whole idea of play is to ignite the creative spirit that lives inside. Children grow and develop through play. They learn social roles and develop communication skills. They test boundaries and push limits. Play helps them to make sense of the world. It helps them to understand themselves. Play allows children to dream, to imagine, to live out their creative realities. Play is where their internal processes are made external. Play is how children communicate with us. It’s what lets us into their world.
Sure, some toys are designed to be used a certain way, but just because my child has the ability to think outside the box doesn’t mean he is playing “incorrectly.” By telling him to play “the right way” with his toys, I am stifling his creativity, inhibiting his imagination and crushing his dreams. I am shutting the door that he has opened to let me into his world. I am declining an invitation to connect with him, to get to know him. He’s showing me parts of himself, and I’m turning away. I’m basically saying, Don’t be yourself. Be who the world wants you to be.
It’s hard to admit all of this, but I know that writing it down and sharing it will keep me accountable. I want to give my boys the best possible chance at growing into confident, independent, successful men, and it all starts right here, right now, at home, with me.