It’s ok to fuck up. It’s ok to not know everything. It’s ok to be physically unable to do something, to get angry, and to pee your pants a little when you laugh too hard. It’s even ok to have a lurid history – to have made questionable decisions as a young person. These are what make us human, after all, and none of us (not even the Dalai Lama!) is perfect. Believe it or not, it’s also ok to admit any and all of your “faults” to your children…. in fact, it’s good for them.
Trying to maintain an aura of “I’m perfect because I’m an adult, and, more importantly, your parent” is not only mentally exhausting, it’s detrimental to your child’s self esteem, emotional growth, and to your relationship with him or her. It also won’t last forever; one day, your kid is going to catch you making a mistake of some sort, and the jig will be up. Then you’ll face trust issues, which are never fun.
Your kids need to see that you are capable of screwing up. Share your disasters with them, minor and major, and it will teach them how to deal with their own mistakes. They will better learn to laugh (or cry) a little, dust themselves off, and try again.
I practice bassoon at home, usually when my kids are home and milling around. I will honk, squawk, and miss notes, and I will laugh along with them while they giggle at me. They hear me start a difficult passage slowly, and with plenty of mistakes. Over time, they hear that same passage as it gets faster and more accurate. They also hear the days when I’m just not doing so well musically, and even things I had mastered before sound like two geese attempting intercourse… and failing. It’s pretty refreshing to have them encouraging *me* to keep trying, instead of the other way around.
If you accidentally injure them, break their stuff, or hurt their feelings, you’ve got to apologize to your children. And an essential thing: You MUST apologize to them if you hurt them on purpose. If you find you can’t say “I’m sorry” to your kids, then you should do some serious soul-searching, not to mention, ball-growing. If you hit or spank your child, even if you believe that it is helpful to do so, you seriously have to say that you’re sorry for doing it. You can add a “but” if you feel that it’s really necessary (“I’m sorry that I spanked you, but you did something dangerous and I didn’t know how else to get your attention”), but your children need to know that you didn’t enjoy hurting them, and that it made you feel bad to do it.
They also need to know that you hold yourself accountable for your actions. This is crucial to their development, as well as an excellent way to cement their relationship with you. Don’t forget; you are your child’s most important role model, so act like you expect them to act; if you break their toy, help fix it or replace it. Help to fix their emotions, too, if you do or say something that hurts their feelings. This makes you a bigger person.
Researching things with your kids is a terrific way to prime them for serious schooling. If you don’t know how many toes an armadillo has on its back feet, then don’t lie to your kids when they ask you about it. Don’t blow off the question, either… Google it! Or, better yet, make a list of curious questions from your young reader and then cart the family to the library and teach them how to find the answers in books.
All kids love learning about stuff, especially if it’s presented in a fun and engaging way. That’s what makes them children; they are growing and learning every day. Teaching them how to teach themselves is a terrific gift, and so is admitting that you don’t know everything. It’s cool to be humble; it’s also cool to be curious with your kids.
Share your emotions with your kids, for better and for worse. Nothing hurts a child’s psyche like thinking that what they are feeling is “wrong.” If they see that you get pissed, scared, sad, frustrated, lonely, and irrationally irritated, they will feel so much better about their own emotions. As an added bonus, they will also get to watch you work through your negative emotions, and, with any luck, will try that strategy next time they’re feeling no-so-happy.
Remember that they are also little experts at knowing when you are feeling prickly. It’s really important to let them know that, although you’re feeling angry, it is not because of them, because most children will assume that the way that you’re feeling was directly a result of something that they did. If it *is* because of them, let them know that with carefully chosen words. “I am feeling a little mad right now because you broke my pen after I asked you not to use it. I will feel better soon, and it would help if you said that you were sorry. When I am less mad, we can talk about how to keep this kind of thing from happening again.”
Let your kids in on your little secrets, jokes, and especially your spotty past. Do you remember hearing stories about your parents from when they were children? Nothing satisfied like knowing that your Dad flunked algebra, your Mom burned her bra in a protest, and your parents met at a Smashmouth concert. Ok, maybe not the last part, but my point is that it’s cool for kids to know that you made some; er, *different* choices when you were their age, and that you still made it to adulthood.
My kids know that I wet the bed when I was young. A lot. When they were little, I told them about how I would wake up, feel the soaked sheets, and be embarrassed and terrified about my parents finding out. Why would I bother telling them this? Because it was something that they were going through, and I wanted to let them know that I empathized with them… and that I absolutely would not be angry if they had an accident. I also wanted them to know that It Gets Better; here I am, 44, and I’m all done wetting the bed! They also know that I had issues with talking out of turn in school, that I started out as a terrible piano player, and that I once burned myself badly on a lighter. As they got older, they’ve also heard about when and why I started to drink alcohol, my high school stint in a mental institution, and my horrible (and sometimes decent!) choices in boy and girl friends.
It seems counter-intuitive to share these exploits with one’s impressionable children, but there are a few good reasons for doing it:
1) Young people are going to do dumb shit. You cannot stop them. If they don’t think up the dumb shit to do, their peers will, and your kids might be sucked into it. With any luck, a tiny corner of their brain will recall the stories about you doing similar dumb shit as a kid, and they will be less likely to engage in some of the more outright dangerous activities, because they will remember how your life was influenced by your poor past decisions. In other words, they might just learn from your mistakes.
2) Your children will be much more likely to come to you after they’ve done something stupid, or, even better, *before* they’ve done it. They will feel like they can trust you more, because you shared a bit of your goofy past with them, and, let’s face it, owning up to a dumb move is better than lying about it or covering it up.
3) Remembering the dumb shit you did as a kid will help you cope with your own child’s horrible decisions without murdering them. It’s true… ask your therapist. And a little empathy never hurt anyone.
4) You will have a better relationship with your kid. The goal here is not to be best buddies, or partners in crime. You still want them to do their best, and when they don’t, they’re still going to get the Switch taken away; but at the core of your beings, you will understand each other a lot better than the parent and child who don’t share their lives with one another.
Let your children know about your own shortcomings. If they know that you have an irrational fear of water in the frozen state, they will be less pissed at you for not taking them ice skating. If they know that you suffer from depression, they will be more likely to understand why there are days when you can’t do the extra stuff that the family likes to do. And, of course, if they know that you are not a perfect person, they will be more forgiving of themselves when they turn out to also not be perfect. Knowing that you have strengths and weaknesses will prepare them for finding their own.
You might be afraid to air your laundry with your kids. “But they’re going to think I’m a failure! I might fall off my pedestal! They think I’m great, and I don’t want to change that!” Believe me; your young children are going to think you hung the moon, no matter what… and your teens are still going to think you suck, no matter what. So go ahead; share your human side with young people. Laugh with them about that accidental slipped fart; it’s totally cool.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to find out how many toes the average armadillo has on its back feet.