Parenting Fail: Compassion & Repair
After the previous post, a reader asked a good question that I had planned on talking about in this post. Essentially the gist of the question involved wondering whether it's realistic to presume that we can have such a good awareness of or relationship with our shadow that we don't pass on such negative legacies to our children. If it's unrealistic, what roles do forgiveness and consistent communications of love play in mitigating the impact of our shadow-inspired behaviors? I love this question because the last thing I hope to communicate in these writings is that perfection is a possibility in parenting (or in life). One of the most harmful effects I've encountered in my work with adult learners is the impact of perfectionistic expectations. These expectations, first learned through a variety of abusive parenting behaviors (whether it's physical abuse repercussions for not measuring up, intellectual abuse practices that communicate that a child is lacking something cognitively, or emotional abuse engagements that break a child down with words or neglect), move from an external voice to an internal voice as the child becomes an adult. As so many of us learn, even when our parents are out of sight they are certainly not out of mind.
Children, who are (like us) by definition perfectly imperfect, desperately desire to see their parents and other caregivers as equally human. Nothing brings a child more peace and joy than to hear parents share a story about a time when they made a mistake, when they felt embarrassed, when that secret thing that you know your child feels tremendous self-consciousness about can be met with the balm of parental identification. The road between embarrassment and shame becomes an expressway as children get older, so the quicker we can come alongside our children to say, "Hey, I don't know exactly what it feels like to be you right now, but I experienced something similar. Would it be helpful to hear about it?" the greater the likelihood we will create safety and a feeling of community in an experience that is always rife with the possibility for isolation and the development of self-love deficit. In the same way, we are not going to get it right every time. Kids learn how to and often succeed at pushing our buttons, we may have had a particularly difficult day at work, or intimate relationships may be adding stress to our already full plates. Or maybe all three of those things join together in an unholy alliance against your best intentions as a parent, and before you know it you have lost your temper, issued a punishment that was completely out of line with the infraction at hand, and in your embarrassment you double down and threaten the other kids not to make the same mistake as the one who just received the brunt of your momentary emotional immaturity. These are not the moments we hope our kids will immortalize in their memory. Our saving grace in such moments is our capacity to shorten the distance between these experiences of emotional dysregulation and when we are in our "right mind" again so that we can move away from a need for control and move toward our children's need for emotional attunement. In other words, how do we move from shadow possession to integrated, conscious parenting? Since it's unlikely any of us will embody absolute perfection in parenting, how might we use even these times of brokenness as opportunities for teaching moments for our children (and for ourselves)?
John Gottman, our country's most respected marriage therapist and researcher, talks about the importance of repair in his work with couples. Among married couples, the four primary behaviors that predict the end of a relationship include: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. When these are consistently present, there is a high likelihood of divorce. However, if couples are able to successfully repair—even in the face of these "four horsemen of the apocalypse"—there is a good chance that their marriage will survive. In a similar fashion, I trust that some of these behaviors show up in our parenting at times. It's relatively easy to see how the four horsemen are connected to less than nurturing parenting behaviors. The question is whether these parental stances are patternistic or represent periodic lapses in judgment. A good number of us perform at a level of what object relations theorist D.W. Winnicott called "good enough" parenting. We may struggle at times to respond to our children with the respect and wonder they deserve, but we seek repair in the aftermath of these communicational misfires. When parents are unable to engage in the self-reflexivity required for this kind of repair based parenting, children receive the message that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. These parents are often more concerned with being right than being in right relationship. What results is the development of a shame core that becomes the primary basis for the child's sense of self. The repercussions of this shame core are too numerous to spell out in this post, but I imagine many of you know firsthand how that has impacted you or loved ones negatively.
So, the next time you lose your temper, issue a punishment that seems over the top, or cling to defending your own ego at the expense of protecting that of your developing child, take a step back to consider what's getting stirred up within you that has absolutely nothing to do with your children. As soon as you can connect to your inner functional adult—the place where loving kindness and gratitude reside—move toward your child to let them know that you overreacted and that you're sorry. From there, it's important to do your best to work on not making this a pattern, otherwise your apologies begin to ring hollow when such behaviors continue. Seeking relational repair with your child doesn't make you less of a parent. If anything, it reveals a willingness to relate to one's own shadow in ways that are remarkably redemptive for our children who learn through our humility and self-awareness a way forward in their task of moving toward compassionate interdependence. By taking responsibility for their actions—especially when those actions remind them of their connection with humanity in all its beautiful brokenness—our children recycle our parenting legacies in ways that help them to move toward suffering with understanding, identification, and a desire to connect and repair a world in desperate need of their compassion and empathy.