I don’t always get this parenting thing right.
My kids and I had a (mostly) wonderful Sunday in Ocean City, NJ at Wonderland Pier. Toward the end of the day at the amusement park, my boys decided that they wanted to go through the mirror maze. They had been through the maze earlier when my mom was in charge, and so I assumed that I didn’t have to reiterate the importance of keeping their arms outstretched to avoid hitting their heads.
You know what happens when you assume, right?
I proceeded to watch both of my children start barreling through these mirrored, disorienting tunnels without any of their usual safety mindedness. (This is not sarcasm; both of my boys are typically very careful.) I yelled for both of them to stop running and to put their hands up for protection, but neither could hear me which only increased my anxiety. I watched in horror as my 5 year old hit his head not once, but three times over the next couple of minutes as he clumsily made his way out of the maze. He wasn’t smiling but he seemed unfazed. I was freaking the fuck out.
Yes, I’m a mom. I’m also a physical therapist in an acute rehabilitation hospital. I don’t mess around when it comes to head injuries. I know the long-term damage even one concussion can cause.
So I did what any great parent would do (that was sarcasm): I yelled at him.
“I THOUGHT YOU KNEW THE RULES! WHY WEREN’T YOU MORE CAREFUL?! LET ME SEE YOUR HEAD.”
He burst into tears, and buried his head into my stomach, clearly embarrassed and ashamed. After I assessed that no ER visit was needed, *I* felt embarrassed and ashamed.
I grew up in a family where love was often expressed as fear. My dad had a famous saying that would be leveled like an accusation anytime my sibling or I hurt ourselves or overslept or were late or simply acted like children: “what’s the matter with you?!” It was almost like his catchphrase, and in the 19 years since his death we've recalled it with a fondness it doesn’t really deserve. Those words sunk deep. If anyone knows the power of careless words, it’s me.
Once I had this realization, I picked him up and looked him in his sad eyes. “Wow. You hurt your head and then I hurt your feelings. No wonder you’re crying.”
He sobbed and nodded in confirmation. We took several moments together (including this one, captured by big bro) to breathe and feel our crappy feelings. Then Charlie said he was tired of feeling sad and we told jokes until we felt happy again. Here is a family favorite:
“Why did the old man fall down the well? He couldn’t see that well.” :-)
Admitting when we get it wrong is just as valuable to our children as getting it right, if not more so. They need to know it’s not only ok, but totally normal to make mistakes. They need to know grown ups aren’t perfect, so when they’re imperfect grown ups they won’t incorrectly wonder if there is something wrong with them.
If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying. And damn, at least I’m trying.