Before I had children, I had a nifty little equation cemented in my mind. It went like this: crying baby = bad mom.
This wasn‘t the only equation I had tucked inside my brain. There were other scenarios that I surmised also added up to bad parenting: a toddler pitching a royal fit in public. An elementary child on the playground who pushed another kid. A sassy preteen who rolled her eyes and dismissively declared, “Whatever.“ A teen who broke the rules … or worse yet, broke the law. These things I felt could be tethered directly back to the fact that a child had an ill-equipped parent.
Well, to date, at least one of my children has done all of the above. I guess that puts me in bold contention for “Worst Mom of the Year.“ Or maybe even decade.
Or does it?
The assumption here is that one can draw a straight line from the behavior of a child to the capability and competence of a mom. But we must ask: Do your children‘s bad choices mean that you have failed as a parent?
Jill Savage and Dr. Kathy Koch address this in their book No More Perfect Kids:
“Good parenting doesn‘t provide any surety your kids will make good choices. That‘s true when your toddler throws a fit at the zoo, and it‘s also true when your son becomes a father at age 16. You‘re not a failure if either of those things happen, and neither is your child.“
Now that my kids are post-high school, I‘ve been able to reflect on this concept — the myth that your children‘s bad choices means you are a bad parent, and also, the corresponding notion that good parenting guarantees offspring who make wise decisions.
Teach them young
One of my young teens thought it would be funny to accompany some friends as they chucked raw eggs at a house. He knew they were doing wrong, but he had no idea it was illegal. He realized this once the owner of the house wanted to press charges.
When your child does wrong because you failed to teach him an area of right from wrong, such as young children eating croutons from a grocery salad bar. Then you shoulder the blame and walk them through how to make the situation right: paying for the food eaten. With that, you teach them what is lawful, and also what is morally and spiritually right.
But as your children age, they will begin to shoulder more of the responsibility for their choices, while also assuming the fault when they behave inappropriately. This shift can be hard on parents. While you would love it if your children followed every single directive you gave them without a misstep, they wouldn‘t learn important lessons that come from having to make a wrong choice right again — confessing, apologizing, compensating whoever was wronged. You must teach, pray and then stand back as they learn to make the right decisions.
Help them hit the reset button
When your child‘s conduct is less than stellar, such as egg-throwing, know your role as a parent. Your responsibility is not to overreact, worrying about those who might think ill of your parenting prowess. Your job is to help your child make amends, learn and move on.
While your human nature may want to holler, “What were you thinking?!” and you may wonder what others will think, you need to remember that they probably weren‘t thinking, at least not in the same way as you. In fact, the decision-making part of the brain isn‘t fully developed until the age of 25.
We expect kids to make decisions as we, adults, would. But sometimes they don‘t. At those times, I‘ve found it helpful to be firm, revisit rules and help them to remedy the situation. In this, I also help them take both the responsibility and actions required to make amends. In those moments, there is no need to shoulder unnecessary guilt. Your child chose wrongly. You didn‘t. There is a difference.
This doesn‘t mean you wink at their wrongdoing. It does mean you fight the urge to blow up and shame, condemn or reject them. As an insightful friend once told me, “When you want them the least is when they need you the most.“ Fight the urge to let any sense of embarrassment keep you from mentoring them through the rough patches as they deal with the fallout from their choices.
When poor choices happen, give grace — first to your child and then to yourself. (Also remember to grant grace to fellow parents who are dealing with the repercussions of their own child‘s choices.) This grace stems from God, of course, but it is supported by the truth that your child has a free will and is not an extension of you.
During the egg-throwing incident, I supported my son as he did what had to be done — speaking to the officer at the police station, making amends to the owner of the house and talking through how best to handle future “sounds-like-fun-but-might-be-illegal“ ideas in the future. Though I wanted to give additional consequences, my husband and I decided the law‘s punishment was enough. Our place was to grant grace.
You are not your child‘s choices. You are their teacher, their counselor and their grace-giver when they do wrong. Your job is to help them live and learn through their experiences, just as you do.
Then forget those “bad parent“ equations. They simply don‘t add up.
Karen Ehman is a speaker and the author of books such as Hoodwinked: 10 Myths Moms Believe and Why We All Need to Knock It Off, Let It Go and Keep It Shut.