It took me a painfully long time to get my dating wings. Of course, few high school kids are truly confident, but on top of the standard nonsense, I exited tenth grade in one town and entered eleventh in another. That’s a brutal year to be the new kid.
I was mostly fine after I got to college. I learned that I deeply enjoyed making women laugh, and that it got a lot easier to ask them out once I’d done so. I don’t remember myself as a player, but I had many more successes than failures.
What is it that makes mistakes with children so haunting? And how does it affect our present and future with them?
Yet I recall my mistakes much more readily and vividly. Dumped a sweet tea on the table, and then into my date’s lap, at the Olive Garden. I can still cringe whenever I want to, thinking of that nothing event from a quarter-century ago. Then I moved a little too quickly with one, and much too slowly with another. I remember emotional hamfistedness on my part that literally makes me wince, two decades later.
Understand, I’m not lamenting. I got married in 1997, and wow, has it ever worked out. She’s an amazing wife and mother. We have two boys together.
But it’s with those two boys that my tendency to accentuate the negative acquires a gravity that reminds me of looking back on my dating life. Certainly it’s a bigger deal, though. If dating is largely an extended interview process for a spouse, then all of my dating problems were fabulously overtaken by events, were they not?
Contrast offspring. These are people we chose to make exist. What is the weight of our obligation to them? If they’re not getting my best, then what is my excuse? Can it ever be good enough?
I’ve done many more things right than wrong with our sons. Most of the time I feel that in my heart. When I don’t, I can spend some time with them and rapidly recover some confidence that I’ve had something significant to do with the fine young men they are.
But what is it that makes mistakes with children so haunting? And how does it affect our present and future with them?
For one thing, the job description of a parent is never the same for very long. Just when you get really good at dealing with one stage of your kids’ lives, a lot of the rules change. You’re still tasked with loving them, keeping them out of danger, and doing what you can to make them positive and contributing adults.
But how to accomplish those things isn’t always clear. When he’s two, the list of things to do and not do is relatively short, and most of the challenge is executing effectively. When he’s fourteen, you know he’s not going to drink bleach or close himself in the chest freezer, but what is he going to do? What do I need to do to counteract? Tougher list to make, isn’t it?
For another, I think that when we want to be good at something (like parenting), we’re overly critical when we examine our record to date. We tend to undervalue success and magnify failure, because success is “settled.” It’s analysis of that failure that is more likely to yield improvement.
But note that improvement is a forward term. You’re not looking back on a mistake to pummel yourself with guilt. Rather, you’re hoping examination will help you avoid something similar in the future. Look back at it with your head, not your heart.
Finally, I think that as we gain parenting experience, we begin to look at our own childhood experiences through that lens. We’re not perfect parents, and guess what? Our parents weren’t either. I can identify things we’re doing so much better than my parents did, it’s ridiculous.
The harder concept, though, is the opposite. How did your parents do it better? What can you glean? Can you get outside of it effectively enough to see your childhood relationship with your dad from his perspective? What makes sense now that didn’t then?
It’s a cliché to say that kids are resilient, but, well, they are. If you are raising yours in an environment of love, care, and discipline, then they’ll survive your occasional missteps just fine. Keep a quest for improvement in perspective. You’re looking for ways to make it better going forward, not marinating in self-loathing for what a rotten job you did.
Just as I can recall that wayward sweet tea in 1988, I can summon a memory of being at a restaurant when Nathan asked to go to the restroom. I’d just taken him, and I growled at him more than I should have — in 2003. He was two. Does he remember it? Of course not. Why in the world do I?
Get what you need from it and cut it loose!