I remember the first time one of my children had a cavity. We’d been brushing teeth for years at that point, diligently, using all the songs and tricks you can imagine to make sure every nook and cranny was reached and rinsed. Flossing, gargling, even a few sniff tests were regular occurrences in our home because oral health is important and because dental procedures are expensive.
There I was, wrangling three young kids at their bi-annual check-up and cleaning, feeling a little smug that I’d even managed to put on makeup for this trip when the dentist casually said that one of my Colgate cuties had a cavity. A cavity. After all I’d done to find tasty toothpaste, after all the songs I’d sung to make sure they brushed long enough, after all the dried blue gunk I’d scraped off the mirror over the sink, one of my children had a cavity.
I was immediately humbled, no longer feeling like The Mom Who Had it All Together, instead identifying as The Mom Who Was Probably Being Judged By The Entire Office Staff For Having Failed At Keeping Her Children’s Teeth Perfect.
It was such a simple thing, right? I had done what I was supposed to do, impressed upon my kids the importance of good oral hygiene, and still, this had managed to happen. A cavity. Even worse for my ego because this was still a “baby tooth” the standard procedure was to clean up the area and protect it with—gasp—a silver crown. The entire world would see the glint of my failure every time my kiddo smiled or spoke, the light bouncing off the metallic badge of shame my boy wore in place of my scarlet C (for cavity, obvs). His mouth shone with the proof that I had failed at preventing something so basic.
We parents are seemingly intent on torturing ourselves with guilt, feeling failure almost daily. Did we spend enough one-on-one time with them today? Did I remember to ask them about their feelings? Did I make a lunch they’ll love, sign that permission form, have a western outfit ready for Friday? We beat ourselves up over the class parties we can’t attend, the gifts we can’t afford, the time we spend on anything other than them.
There are always tasks we wish we’d done better or deadlines we accidentally forgot. There are always other moms to compare ourselves to, moms with bigger budgets and cleaner homes and fluffier hair and no mysterious stains on their car upholstery. There are daily measures that we feel we do not meet and plenty of opportunities to feel we fall short while our kids are blissfully unaware and perfectly happy and healthy.
But then you get the pre-k assessment and your kiddo is being recommended for OT because their motor skills are behind. Or your toddler eats a dead bug they found under the cabinet. Or the dentist finds a cavity.
You get yet another phone call from the school because your pride and joy punched another student, or is failing math, or is no longer welcome on campus. Your child steals candy from the gas station. Your teenager skips school. Your daughter discovers she’s pregnant. Your son has started cutting himself.
When people find out, the rumors are rampant and the comments are cruel: What kind of mother results in such behavior?
It happens any time I’m brave (or reckless) enough to check the comments of almost any news story—something tragic, scary, sad, or preventable happens, and without fail, people with no knowledge beyond the headlines blame the parents. Those who are really ignorant raise their eyebrows and declare that their child would never, could never, that if they’d been parenting this wouldn’t have happened.
I know it’s hard to accept or believe, but Mama, you need to hear it: Just like my son’s cavity all those years ago, your child’s mistakes are not your own.
Kids get into trouble. Kids make mistakes. Kids push boundaries, find influences elsewhere, try out cuss words, give in to their hormones. Their brains are still forming the logic section and their behavior reflects that. Kids need extra help, have learning differences, need therapies, need medications. Disorders and depression exist and are no respecter of parenting styles. No matter how good of a mom you are, you cannot shield your child from being an imperfect person.
ADHD, ODD, ASD, failure to thrive, speeding tickets, bad days, bad choices—your kids weren’t taught these, they just happen. You cannot parent your child into perfection.
Our children are not our resumes. They are not physical manifestations of our own accomplishments. When they win we feel immense pride, sure, but that doesn’t mean that their “failures” are our shame, nor are they our fault.
We, as adults, are still making mistakes. Daily. We get things wrong, deal with sickness and circumstances beyond our control. We trip, stumble, fumble, and fall, and we know that sometimes crap just happens. Why, then, do we see children’s mistakes as a reflection of their parents? If adults can’t always get it right, why would kids who are growing and learning and flooded with hormones not be allowed grace? And why aren’t their parents afforded the same?
Kids’ choices, circumstances, mistakes, or misalliances are not always a response to bad parenting. Sometimes children just make bad calls. Sometimes learning differences just are. Sometimes mental health struggles pop up without explanation or history.
Our children do not exist as advertisements for their parents, good or bad. History has shown us too many people who succeed despite their upbringing, and too many who fail in spite of their privilege. My toddlers said too many embarrassing things in public that I never taught them, and as they’ve grown they’ve continued to act in ways that have nothing to do with me.
The role of the parent in a child’s life cannot be underestimated, and yes, problems like abuse, neglect, inappropriate boundaries, and hateful beliefs will affect the behavior of a child. Our kids’ childhoods are not devoid of our influence, and we as parents impact our children in countless ways as they grow.
So much of us goes into them—this is true—but as you learn from raising toddlers, they are also very independent people who are completely individual and separate from who we are. Your child’s mistakes are not your own. Their cavities are not your failure, and their struggles are not your fault.
The next time your precious preteen gets in trouble at school or you hear gossip about that kid being held back next year, remember that children are not our resumes. Give moms more grace and less side-eye. Just like with our kids, support will make more impact than judgment.