Parents Behaving Badly

When you desperately need a do-over
Parents Behaving Badly

I hate to admit this, but I blew it again. My daughter was doing her thing she always does. Her brothers were minding their own business, doing their homework. And it was like she couldn’t stand the quiet. It was too calm for her. She started bothering them—trying to get a rise out of them. They didn’t bite, but I could see my youngest son’s cheeks starting to get a little red. He was trying so hard to keep it together and be kind to his little sister. So I stepped in.

“Sarah, I want you to stop,” I calmly said. She didn’t. She ignored me.

“Stop, Sarah,” I said with a little more volume. Sarah still ignored me. I stepped into Sarah’s space, looked her in the eye, and said, “Sarah, I need you to stop now.” Sarah stepped right back in my space and said, “Why don’t you make me.”

Sissy, I don’t know what happened, but in less than five seconds I was on top of her. I lost it. You must think I’m the worst parent in the world.

The mom who said these words to me in my counseling office is not the worst mom in the world. She’s a tired parent . . . an over-worked parent . . . a normal parent.

I can promise you that in 21 years of counseling families, I know that every parent fails.

You know. You’ve been there too. You might have especially been there in the chaos and frenzy of the last several months of holidays. There’s just too much going on. Too much noise. Too many things to do. Too many people to take care of. And then one of your children—that child—smarts off to you. And you lose it. Maybe you don’t literally end up on top of him or her, but you react. Everything you know about good, helpful parenting is out the window and you have messed up again.

Take a walk to your refrigerator. Pick out the most “perfect”-looking family in one of the Christmas cards. That mother and that father loses it too. I know. I’ve seen them in my counseling offices. I can promise you that in 21 years of counseling families, I know that every parent fails. All parents have moments they’re embarrassed of. Every parent wishes they could have a do-over—a fresh start.

Well, we can. That’s what and new mercies are all about. Fortunately—unbelievably, graciously—God gives us those fresh starts daily, not just at New Year’s.

Learning vs. Dwelling

How do you handle your mistakes? If you were the mother in this story, how many hours would you spend beating yourself up over how you treated your daughter? How many days in the past year have you spent dwelling on your mistakes as a parent? When you think of new mercies, how do you feel? Ready? Desperate, even?

Isaiah 43:18–20 says, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (NIV). God is doing a new thing in your parenting. Right now. This day. This moment. How do you perceive it? How do you take your eyes off the mistakes of your past to see the new thing God is doing in and through you?

Think back on the growth charts you’ve made over the years with your child. Your son would stand in the doorway—sometimes trying to shrink and sometimes standing on his tippy toes—while you tried to get his exact, un-squiggling height marked on the doorframe with his name beside it. Your growth is much the same as a parent. You don’t want to dwell on the past and get stuck in it. Beating yourself up doesn’t help you or your child. But you can learn from your past. You can use it as a starting point to see and perceive all that God wants to grow in you and your family.

As a parent, you’ve made mistakes. You’ll make many more. But you’re not defined by those mistakes.

I recently had a family I was counseling create a family report card. They wanted to learn to communicate better. Honestly, they were doing just fine. But these were self-aware, honest parents. They knew they had made mistakes. They knew they’d make more. But they wanted to learn how to love their children better and to know what it meant to be who God had called them to be as a family. And so they chose the activities and values that were most important to them. They chose specific things like service, family devotionals, play, family meals, and household responsibilities as well as bigger picture ideas, such as kindness, awareness of others, apologizing, communication, and listening. Each family member was able to give the entire family a grade on these items—and talk about how they could do better as a family. (Their teenagers, by the way, loved getting to have this kind of input.) Each person also graded himself and talked about what he wanted to do differently.

It was an exercise in communication, in listening and truly hearing each other. The children each felt like they had a voice and saw the parents as open and willing to receive feedback. The parents learned a great deal about how the kids saw their family and what they could do to grow individually as parents and together as a family.

Learn from your past, but don’t dwell on it. In Intentional Parenting, David Thomas, Melissa Trevathan, and I also encourage families to sit down and come up with a family mission statement. Let this January be a reset for you—individually, as a parent, and together as a family. Make a family report card. Come up with a mission statement together. As a parent, you’ve made mistakes. You’ll make many more. But you’re not defined by those mistakes. And as you learn to live in God’s grace, you will no longer be paralyzed by your past but freed to be more of the parent God has called you to be.

Be Proactive Rather than Reactive

What would it look like for you to be freer as a parent? As a counselor, I would definitely recommend that discipline still be a part of your parenting. Children of all ages feel safer within the confines of boundaries. But your discipline can come from a place of action, rather than reaction. Consider these proactive parenting ideas:

1. Choose discipline ideas in a non-discipline moment. Have several strategies in your back pocket you can use with each of your children. Think about each of their triggers—what they get in trouble for the most. What are appropriate consequences you can give them in each of those situations? Foster Cline and Jim Fay have written several fantastic books called Parenting with Love and Logic that offer great discipline ideas.

As you learn to live in God’s grace, you will no longer be paralyzed by your past but freed to be more of the parent God has called you to be.

2. Communicate the consequences ahead of time. When your child makes a wrong choice, they should know what follows. You don’t have to get angry. It takes the emotion out of the equation. All you have to say is, “Hand me your phone,” or, “That’s ten minutes in time-out.” It’s the consequences they learn from rather than our emotion anyway. They’ve made the choice knowing what the results will be. You can let the consequences do the teaching.

3. Slow down. Make a commitment to not overcrowd your calendar or schedule. We live at a much too frenetic pace in our society. How many arguments would be saved on the way to church if we simply started ten minutes early? What can you cut out of your schedule? How can you intentionally spend more time together as a family—more slow, unplugged, together kind of time? Your children need it and so do you.

Forgiving and Forgetting What’s Behind

“No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13).

Do not dwell on the past—your past or your children’s. They need a reset just like you do. Your children or teenagers may be stuck in a behavior pattern that hurts them. They may need help from you as a proactive parent to break those habits. Consistent, intentional consequences do make a huge difference. It may even be that you need outside eyes on the situation to break a pattern. A counselor can be a great resource in those times. But your children also need forgiveness. I talk to way too many children and teens who feel that their parents won’t let go of their past mistakes. Just like you need hope and a fresh start, so do your children. Talk together about how this year can be that for all of you. Lean into the truth of in The Message: “Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!”

Be a parent of green hope. Learn from the past, but don’t dwell in it. You will fail. But you can try again, each and every day. And you can trust in a God who is a perfect parent so that you don’t have to be. That is good, green, hopeful kind of news . . . for us and our children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Sissy Goff

Sissy Goff is a TCW regular contributor. She spends most of her days talking with girls and their families as the Director of Child and Adolescent Counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee. She is also the author of six books, including Intentional Parenting, as well as the video curriculum, Raising Boys and Girls. Follow her blog at RaisingBoysAndGirls.com.

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