“I hope when the kids are grown, the mom they remember is the one who took them to the zoo and played board games and baked cookies with them, not the one who completely lost her cool over the dumbest things,” I laughed to my husband. But the joking tone couldn’t completely mask the truth at the heart of my words.
For years, I was plagued with regret over my mistakes as a mom. Although I have long been a believer in being intentional with our words to our children, I have also said many things I wish I could take back. I have carefully crafted my “mom-isms” to be reflective of our family values and the things I want my children to take with them into adulthood, and I have carelessly uttered words I hope they will quickly forget.
This, my friends, is called being human.
Peggy O’Mara reminds us, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” This is actually what prompted me to wonder to my husband what our kids would remember of me when they’re grown. The good or the bad? The fun mom or the frustrated one? And as I have spent time with my teens and listened to some of their struggles, I’ve found that both versions of me are in there.
They carry the good and the bad. And I can’t go back and change it.
Just typing that sentence makes me a little sick to my stomach to be honest. I want so much to go back and fix my mistakes. But that is not reality. We can’t go back. But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless, either. We can do good, important work to help heal the hurts our words have caused.
This is what the counseling world calls “rupture and repair,” and believe it or not, it’s an important part of development. In fact, it is more important for our children that we model rupture and repair than that we just do everything right all of the time. Because the truth is, they won’t be able to do everything flawlessly (and of course, neither will we), so they need to see that it is OK to mess up—and how to handle it when they do.
So when we mess up and say something hurtful, either in our words or by our tone, we come back to them and repair. Yes, we go and apologize to our children. Even if they’re toddlers. Even if they’re teenagers.
Yes, it is humbling and hard. But it is critical, my friends. Our children need us to model humility far more than perfection.
But what if the ‘rupture’ wasn’t recent? What if it happened years ago? What if I have messed up over and over?
I will say again: we can’t go back. We can only start from where we are. Apologize anyway. Sit your child(ren) down, acknowledge that you can’t change the past and you can’t fix everything with one little “I’m sorry,” but show them your remorse and give them hope for the future. And tell them you love them. Always.
And then—and this is key—repent. That means that we don’t just apologize and then keep going in the same direction. Repent means that we make a change so we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again. It doesn’t mean we’ll never mess up again, but it does require us to put in the effort and make a plan.
So how do we do better as we move forward?
First and foremost, as with any internal change, it starts with the power of the Holy Spirit, not ourselves. We must be abiding in Christ and growing in our relationship with Him if we want to make true, lasting change. Spend time in God’s Word, humble yourself in prayer, and actively seek his guidance as you parent.
But as we grow in Him, we can also take practical steps to help us speak words of life to our children.
Here are a few things to help you get started:
1. Make a plan.
As we know, our children will mess up, both accidentally and intentionally. But rather than waiting until the heat of the moment when emotions are high to figure out how to handle it, we can craft key words and phrases ahead of time. Often our frustration is compounded by our uncertainty to know how to handle the situation. By knowing in advance what we will say and do, we can keep our emotions in check.
2. Focus on growth.
Remember our goal as parents is to help our children grow into caring, responsible, resilient adults. In order to accomplish that, we need to help them learn and grow from their mistakes, not just mete out punishment for a wrong. Even when we are correcting our kids, we want them to see it comes from a place of love and concern, not anger or frustration. If you’re not in a place to do that, you might need to temporarily remove yourself from the situation, which brings us to our next point.
3. Take your time.
Yes, deal with any immediate danger that might need to be handled but don’t feel like you need to dole out consequences or a lecture right there in the moment. If you need a few seconds, take a deep breath and count to 10. If you need a little more time, explain this to your child. Something like, “I love you so much, and I want to be sure we figure out the best way to handle it. Let me think about it for a little bit and we will talk about it ___________.” Give them a time and stick to it.
4. Sandwich correction between words of love.
In order for our children to really hear us, they have to feel seen and loved by us. Start and end with words of love and encouragement, and give them just one bit of correction in the middle. For example, “I love seeing you grow in your independence! But that doesn’t mean you can use the stove without asking. If I hadn’t been close enough to help when the pot overflowed, you could have gotten hurt! I do love seeing your excitement to try new things and enjoy helping you learn. Let’s cook something together next time, OK?” One disclaimer: if your opening words of encouragement are “I love you,” do not immediately follow them with the word “but.” “I love you, but . . .” does not set the stage for a positive experience for anyone!
5. Give yourself grace.
When we heap guilt and anger on ourselves, it will keep seeping out toward those around us. I’ll say it again: we will mess up. But that is our opportunity to show our children how to display humility and love by apologizing and repenting. That is a valuable skill we all need.