It can be tough talking to our children about the mistakes we made growing up, especially when a direct question deserves an honest and authentic answer. Dr. Richard Horowitz offers some excellent insights and tips on how to handle situations like these.
Does talking about the mistakes I make and have made in my life weaken me as an authority figure to my children?
This question speaks to the core issue of modeling. That is acting in a manner we wish our children to act. On one hand, as role models for children, parents want to present themselves as being pretty terrific people. When children look up to us it meets our needs for love and belonging. When children are obedient and follow parental advice the adult’s need for power is met. We associate these interactions with highly positive words like respect and admiration.
However, sometimes being on a pedestal can be a precarious place. We might want to mask our frailties in order to preserve our image of perfection. The fear that our children might lose respect for us if we admit weakness can lead to a loss of ourselves and a model that our children just might perceive as unattainable. A child who feels s/he can never equal his/her perfect parent loses self-esteem and will often give up trying. This is the downside of being the perfect role model. This is especially true for younger children who tend to aggrandize the power of adults in general and their parents in particular.
Adolescents by the very nature of this stage of development are far more prone to question the capabilities and judgment of parents. Parents with adolescents who are dealing with the “hot topics” are especially vulnerable to questions about what they did when they were teenagers. As long as it isn’t overdone, most parents find that their children enjoy hearing stories about what it was like when they grew up. Consequently, our children want to know how we handled the challenges of personal freedom, partying and dating. The challenge is to respond in a way that is authentic and validates the concern of the child without giving them the message that since their parents pushed the envelope and wound up alright, they too can indulge in these behaviors.
Below are some suggested ways to respond. However, remember that the parental response should be sincere and be the product of some adult reflection about our true beliefs and values on these topics. Teenagers have a good sense of what is “real” to them and if we sound too perfect or preachy they will shut us off.
What I did and the mistakes that I made should not be an excuse for your decision-making.
The legal consequences for some of the behaviors I indulged in were not as severe as they are today. (This is especially true for possession of controlled substances.)
A lot more is known today about the physical harm done to our bodies due to tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.
The consequences of unprotected sexual activity can be deadly.
If I knew then what I know now I would have behaved differently.
The price I paid for my excesses were ……………………….
What we really must focus on is how to get your needs for freedom and fun met with few negative consequences.
The other side of the coin is the parent who constantly gives voice to his/her own shortcomings. Either through blaming others and/or themselves for things not working out as planned they model a victim or helpless role. This extreme can create a sense of anxiety in a child. The message they receive from the helpless parent is that the world is a scary place with little ability to control what is happening in life.
The middle ground is what we should be striving for. Our children need, for their sense of well being, to experience their parents as sufficiently masterful to create a safe place for them. Young children, as mentioned, will naturally view their parents as powerful figures so we really don’t have to stretch the issue with excessive self-praise. However, children do need to develop resiliency – the ability to bounce back from adversity. We learn how to be resilient through modeling and experience. Parents who acknowledge an error or problem then take responsibility for its solution are demonstrating resilience to their children. They have not attempted to hold the impossible standard of perfection as an indicator of self-worth but have modeled the reality that things do go wrong and mistakes happen. The key is not indulging in self-pity and, after acknowledging the fact that something has gone wrong, acting in a way to make things better.
A related issue is how we deal with our mistakes when it specifically regards an action we took with our children.
An illustration might be useful.
Martha came home from work at her usual 6:00 p.m. time only to find that her 12 year-old-son Ron was not at home. There is a standing rule in the family that if Ron is playing at a friend’s house after school he is to be home by 6:00.
Martha is annoyed and starting to get a bit worried about Ron. At 6:30 she starts calling Ron’s friends. On the fourth call she reaches his friend Wayne’s mother. She says that Ron is with Wayne and they are working on something in the garage and she will go get him. Martha is really angry now that her fear has subsided. She tells Ron to get home immediately and that she will deal with him when he arrives at home.
When Ron comes in, Martha immediately tells him that the rules in the house, which he agreed to, required him to be home at 6:00. She is quite direct and tells him, “Go to your room until dinner. After dinner we will process what went on.” Ron protests, “You are unfair, I didn’t do anything wrong.” Martha replies, “Get to your room, you are on Shut Down until after dinner.” Ron is obviously furious but complies.
After a rather unpleasant dinner, Martha says she is ready to talk. Ron tells his mother that two days ago he had told her about working on the school project with Wayne until 7:00. He reminds her that she was talking on the phone and he came into the room and said excuse me and asked permission to go to Wayne’s the day after tomorrow to finish a science project. He said that she nodded her approval.
Martha listens and does remember the incident. She was on the telephone talking to her sister about a relationship issue and was quite absorbed in the conversation. She vaguely remembers Ron saying something about a science project but she thought he said that he had to call Wayne to discuss it. Martha now has a choice. She can stonewall her son with comments like. “See what happens when you interrupt me when I am on the telephone” or she can admit that she misunderstood him and ask for his suggestions on how this type of situation can be avoided in the future.
Certainly the admission that an error was made and that she is sorry that she assumed that he had broken a rule instead of first asking for an explanation will serve several purposes. First, Martha models for her son that people make honest mistakes and when they realize it, they will take responsibility for correcting them. Second, the dialogue between Martha and Ron is now problem solving oriented, involves Ron in decision-making, and shows how feedback can be used to make improve a family practice or system. Martha’s admission and willingness to communicate is a good example of putting Family Centered Parenting into practice. ###
Dr. Richard Horowitz is better known as “Dr. H,” The Family Centered Parenting Coach. His book is entitled, Family Centered Parenting: Your Guide for Growing Great Families. [website]