Why I Stopped Patting Myself On The Back For My Kids’ Success
I repeat this phrase like a mantra, and it gets me through the highs and lows of parenting.
My oldest child is, simply put, an achiever. He is an all-star athlete and a model student who is disciplined, determined, and hard-working. So it’s easy for me to give myself a metaphorical pat on the back when he wins first place in a chess tournament or scores a touchdown. It feels like his laundry list of accomplishments and general “good” behavior are proof of my excellent mothering, and that I am, to some degree, even responsible for them.
But then something happened that shattered this ridiculous illusion that I was holding onto: he screwed up. My son said something extremely rude to a friend of mine. I’m not going to share the all details to protect his privacy, but let’s just say that I was mortified.
“I’m so sorry,” I gushed to my friend after it happened. She looked confused and asked me why I was apologizing when I did nothing wrong. Then she delivered the profound words that would change my life forever: “Your child is not you.”
As obvious as this statement is, it had never occurred to me. As a mom, I feel such deep and abiding love and connection to my kids that it’s difficult to separate myself from them. I feel like they’re an extension of my own being, the way my arm is an appendage to my torso. When something happens to them, I experience it as though it’s happening to me. So of course I felt I could take the credit for my kids’ achievements or should be ashamed of something negative they did or said.
“I’ve raised you better than that and you’ve humiliated us both!” I angrily said to my son after the incident. The problem was, I was seeing the situation as a direct reflection of me rather than what it was: a mistake he made. I was so focused on my embarrassment over how his behavior made me look that it didn’t occur to me that it had nothing to do with me at all, but instead, had everything to do with the fact that he is a prepubescent kid learning how to navigate complicated friendship dynamics.
My friend’s poignant statement made me realize that if all of my kids’ achievements have nothing to do with me, then neither do their failures. I can’t take credit for their easy-going temperament or proclivity toward academic success any more than I can accept blame for their shortcomings. Of course, parents have an effect on how their kids turn out, but ultimately our kids are who they are, for better or worse.
Anytime I’m out in public and one of my kids does something wrong, I feel disgrace because I always assume that the people around me are horrified and judging me for being the type of parent who allows a child to act like that. I’m sensitive and I worry about how I’m being perceived, because — let's be honest — the mom-shaming struggle is real. But generally, my child is simply having a reaction, typically an age-appropriate one at that. Pushing boundaries and veering off course are both part of growing up and how kids learn about the world around them. I’m putting too much pressure on my kids to be “good” all the time, which isn’t fair to them.
I am doing my children a massive disservice when I view them as a reflection of myself. My identity cannot hinge on my kids’ achievements or failures because it leaves no room for their humanity or individuality, or the errors, blunders, and wrong turns that are par for the course with adolescence. Balancing the undeniable gratification of seeing myself in my kids’ successes, yet restraining myself when things inevitably go awry is tricky.
I’m learning from my mistakes, and now when my kids experience a victory or a defeat, I resist the urge to congratulate or berate myself because it is my child’s accomplishment or misstep, not mine, and it really takes the pressure off.
Christina Crawford is a Dallas-based writer, guacamole enthusiast, and mom to three feral little boys. She spends her days putting out fires (actual and metaphorical) and trying to keep goldfish alive. Her words have appeared in Newsweek, HuffPost, Health Magazine, Parents, Scary Mommy, Today Show Parents, and more. You can follow along on Twitter where she writes (questionably) funny anecdotes about her life at @Xtina_Crawford