The things that keep me up at night

I haven’t written in so long.  So what prompted this come back?  I am parenting alone tonight.  Richard is out-of-town, and my oldest son, Noah, was out with his friends enjoying some freedom that comes with being 14.  We discussed a curfew, and agreed upon 10:45.  Now I fell asleep and woke to the sound of him coming in the door at 11:45.  I had no time to worry and build up fear about him lying in a ditch somewhere (no ditches in our North Shore neighborhood but you get the gist).  Instead, I was able to really be aware of how much fear HE had built up,,….about me and my reaction.

It turns out that it was an honest mistake.  He had fallen asleep on a friend’s couch.  His friends were not aware of his curfew so did not wake him.  Then being the mench that he is, he still had to walk 2 girls home before he could get home.  He could not call me to tell me he would be late, so he had some time to worry.

I am constantly reading self-help, self-reflection, parenting, being a better person type books.  My latest favorite is: ” Brain Rules for Baby”, by John Medina.  It showcases everything we know up to date about how the brain develops and what that can translate into for parenting.

One of the nuggets from this really good book, is that our “brains seek safety above all”.  Any thing that seems a threat to this “safety” becomes the focus.  So what does this mean for parenting?

Well, we all fall into one of 4 categories of parenting styles:

1. authoritative:  firm but warm (good balance)

2. authoritarian:  firm but not so warm (harsh)

3. indulgent:  warm but not firm (no limits)

4. neglectful:  not warm and not firm (non-existent)

Sounds like we are talking about bread here, but one parenting style is the most effective for how our brains are wired.  You got it, numero uno,  authoritative.  I think about it like good coaching.  The best coaches demand a lot out of their players, but do not get angry when they make mistakes.  Instead, they see taking risks and making mistakes as the only way to grow and develop.  The players have immense respect for these coaches, but do not fear them.  They know that the coaches goal is for them to be the best that they can be.

When I think about what I REALLY want as a parent it is, that somehow I can facilitate my children’s true spirit to thrive and flourish.  To borrow from the old army slogan:  be the best that you can be.  Making mistakes is a big part of this.  Unfortunately this is just the way it is.  We learn as we go.  I am so painfully aware of this, now that my oldest is becoming more independent and starting to navigate the world without me helicoptering just above him.  No longer can I indulge in the illusion that I have control.  He is having to rely on himself, and make judgement calls that I can only process with him after the fact.

It really hit me tonight when I saw how afraid he was of my reaction to his honest mistake.  I don’t want him to be afraid of me.  How is that going to facilitate him using me as a resource when he messes up?  conscientious yes, afraid no.  I don’t want him to be afraid of “getting in trouble”.  The goal of discipline is really self-discipline not “avoidance of getting in trouble”.  I want him to see me as a coach and guide.  Someone to lean on when you have to learn and grow and figure it out.  But if he is afraid of my wrath, I only have myself to thank.

When I was a new parent of this firstborn, I am afraid I leaned a little more towards “authoritarian”.  I was certainly warm, but more controlling than firm.  And when it came to mistakes, I didn’t always get the most mileage out of them as teachable moments.  I was so determined to be the “perfect” parent that I wasn’t going to let anything or anyone get in my way.  Including this sweet little soul.  It was pretty easy at first.  He was such an easy baby.  All I had to do was love him.  Yet, as he began to have a mind of his own and explore the world, and relationships, it was a little trickier.  As his younger sister got added to the mix there were even more things to juggle.   I kind of understood that mistakes were good teaching moments, but I think my need to be “mom of the year” was mixed in too.  Mistakes could be embarrassing.  Like the time that Noah and his best friend (age 4) threw everything they could find into a friends fancy lawn waterfall to see what would happen.  Or the time that his younger sister threw a full-blown temper tantrum in the grocery store.  Or, when said younger sister refused to sleep as a baby, and just screamed instead.  The list goes on, but the bottom line is that these “mistakes” were messing up my ability to be the perfect mom.  It was making me look bad!  Perfect moms have perfect children you know.   I came down hard, because I couldn’t separate out my need to have absolutely no bumps in the road,  and their need to make mistakes and learn from them.

So what keeps me up at night is this:  Did this view of mistakes as failure get passed on?  Did my son become afraid of my wrath and therefore afraid of mistakes?  Did my daughter interpret my disapproval and anger as something wrong with her?  That strong emotions are bad, therefore she is bad?

I did not beat them or spank them.  But I have evolved to see that just being angry and losing your temper can be enough.  Children are completely at the mercy of their parents.  So if your anger comes through, either with words or actions, they have no choice but to be affected.  The brain is wired for safety above all else.  So when a parent loses their temper,   avoiding anger becomes the goal, not learning and growth.

I still remember the times that I lost my temper.  Did they cause it?  Of course not, how could they?  What could they possibly do that could warrant that.  My own frustrations and lack of sleep, and harsh judgement of myself were the trigger.  But I will never forget the look on their faces one day in the car when I was angry and yelling at them.  I remember realizing that they were afraid of me.  I could see that I was doing damage.  I still have the “contract” I filled out with them promising to never lose my temper like that again.

So I make mistakes too.  I am learning and evolving, but it is so damn hard to forgive yourself, and see what I want my kids to see:  that mistakes are opportunities for growth.  How do you forgive yourself?  Especially when you think your mistakes have affected your children?  You, yourself are still working on the attitude:  “mistakes are opportunities”.

I think the first step is just ask for forgiveness.  I know if I ask my kids to tell me the specific times I lost my cool, they can rattle them off better than their times tables.  So I will start there, and apologize.  And then I just have to practice what I preach:  Mistakes are golden opportunities for growth.  It is hard, and it keeps me up at night.  But a very healing woman in my life said, ” The more you can forgive yourself, the more forgiving you will be”


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