He pointed his index finger straight at me and flipped his lights. Busted! As the state trooper roared out behind me, I believe I muttered something profound like "Oh, no." My kids were silent as I found the closest pull-off and slowed while the car I had just passed now passed me. A perfectly good morning, just a week shy of the end of the school year, ruined. And I had only myself to blame, speed demon mom that I am.
I did what every responsible driver should—pulled out my driver's license, vehicle registration, and insurance card and held them ready. And, of course, it seemed a month went by as I waited for the officer to walk up to my car window.
We had the usual conversation—he inquired about why I was driving at an increased speed and warned me of the danger of the particular passing lane I had used, and I meekly explained that I was taking my children to school. I didn't bother to tell him that the next ten to twelve miles on this two-lane highway were typically plagued by slow-moving vehicles and this was my last chance to pass those who would slow down my progress to get my little scholars to their classrooms by 8:30. My dominating thought was to get through this as fast as possible. Not only did it mean a pinch to my bank account, but it was also a blow to my mom-mentor status. I'm the mother who tries to point out real-life truths as we ride, dissecting the news and current events on the radio, taking advantage of every teachable moment I have with my kids. To be caught in a blatant transgression before their very eyes was, to say the least, humiliating.
Reacting to failure
The police officer was very nice, saying he had to write me up because of the danger at that particular spot in the highway. He even remarked about where I lived and how the private school where my children attend was a long distance from my home. I agreed with everything he said, saying as little as possible. I just felt . . . small, anxious to process this so I could try to salvage the day.
As we finally pulled away (after I received a nice little slip of yellow paper), I tried to remember that I was the mom, an adult, the one who should model good attitudes for my children. It's big-girl time now. Deal. With. It.
My natural reaction in moments like these is to strike a balance between acknowledgement and joviality—you know, trying to say "Yep, I was wrong" without looking like a total loser. But inside, I was fighting the tide of self-justification welling up to comfort me. "I'm basically a good driver. I was just trying to get my kids to school on time."
Yet none of my temptations to smugness or rationalization could alter the truth—I had done wrong and I had been caught, in a very observable way.
Sadly, I have had prior experience with these types of moments; most of them have been less expensive, but they were still significant in their own ways. I'm Exhibit A for fallible parenting. Are there others who would rise with me?
I've learned that if you're human, your kids will see you fail—at something, probably more than once. It's embarrassing. It's disheartening. It's aggravating.
What's a dad or mom to do? Declare your innocence? Get mad? Be sarcastic? Justify yourself by blaming them? ("I'm sorry I yelled at you, but you shouldn't have. . .")
Basically, I see two categories of parental failure: personal and relational.
Personal failure happens when you exhibit some type of attitude or behavior that showcases a glitch in your own character—my traffic ticket is, sadly, an excellent example. Exceeding the speed limit was not wise and, to be completely honest, also a violation of the law. Though my children observed my wrongdoing, it didn't necessarily hurt them (other than maybe to teach them terrible driving habits!) I'm thankful to the Lord that there wasn't an accident where they would have paid the consequences for my stupidity.
The other category of failure I see is actually a combination of both personal and relational wrong. When a parent brings pain to her child, most likely she has also failed in some personal way. And I've goofed fabulously in this way too—the wrong attitude, the wrong type of discipline, the wrong degree of discipline, the wrong tone of voice. Sometimes I've allowed my frustration to be heaped onto my kids . . . . You know what I mean. Is there any guilt worse than knowing that you've wounded a child? Or maybe the failure isn't focused on them but they are hurt because of it—this would include behaviors like addictions, moral failures, and bad financial practices.
If you've been a parent for any length of time, it's quite certain that you've had at least one occasion to regret something you've done. So, how can we deal with it?
"I was wrong; I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?" I've had to say it many times to my kids. Some parents mistakenly believe that apologies weaken a parent's authority. Some think it is better to hold fast to an image of infallibility than to admit and confess. But our children are quite astute when it comes to right and wrong. They have a built-in radar that works well in these matters. If they sense wrong has been done, but the parent passes it off as inconsequential, the system malfunctions. Perhaps they don't even realize why something seems off-center, but a process begins that ends with a damaged consciousness of sin and a disdain for those who appear to be good. Unfortunately, this has happened all too frequently in the church. Kids reject hypocrisy, but a sincere apology builds trust and will make the parent believable.
Facing the consequences
I have to admit that one of the most awkward consequences of my little conversation with the officer was the vigilance my kids displayed on my driving thereafter. They were quick to warn me about speed limit signs and patrol cars. They kept me accountable, though I wasn't as appreciative as I might have been on another less touchy subject.
All behaviors bear consequences, bad behaviors particularly. And there are more heartbreaking ones than a donation to the State Treasury. Some consequences are huge and open to public scrutiny (homelessness, prison time, bankruptcy). Parents who reap this kind of harvest cannot easily deny their failure. Other consequences are less visible, though just as damaging (a bruised spirit in a child or an attitude of resentment created in a teenager). Whatever the result of our failures, we must face them, own them, and deal with them, praying to God for mercy as we do damage control with our kids.
There was a gospel song several years back that had this line, "Failure isn't final with the Father." I like that. God, the great heavenly parent, doesn't lock us into failure mode; he offers us grace and another chance.
Psalm 103:10 says "He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve." When we turn a humbled heart toward God, he responds. With him, forward motion is always possible. He can help parents to overcome besetting sins, to control frustration, and to even learn to drive more prudently! God isn't interested in keeping us in the dungeon of guilt; he doesn't hold our flubs over our heads for leverage later on. Ultimately, he wants what's best for us and for our children; he is the Father of us all. He wants us to admit the problem, seek change through him, and get on with life. He rejoices that we've learned and turned. He wants us to move forward, wiser and closer to him.
So, when my kids see me fail, I want to exhibit genuine humility and repentance in my attitude. I want them not to excuse me but to grant me grace. I want them to know how to respond to their own moments of failure, how to confess, learn and grow, how to repent and move forward with God.
Now, to end this tale, I should tell you that the ticket is paid, and I'm a better driver now, I think. I certainly watch my speed more closely. It did me good to be humbled and disciplined, and I think that's what God was going for. Flashing red and blue lights work every time.
Valorie Quesenberry is a wife, mother of four, and freelance writer. She is the author of three books in the Sisters of Faith series (Wesleyan Publishing House) and two devotional titles (Barbour Publishing). Her most recent book is His Praise Is on My Lips: A Celebration of Worship for Women.