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Forget Perfection, Celebrate Mistakes, Apologise Loudly

Parenting books - I've always been a fan - at least of the ones that challenge my assumptions, expose my weaknesses, and most importantly, give me new and creative ideas on how to deal with life at the pointy end of parenting. I'm pretty sure there are times when we can all make use of the advice of those who've read more, thought more, researched more, or just parented more than we have.  I know there are some people who say they don't need them, but to me, that's a bit like saying you don't need therapy - it means you probably do.

At the moment, with a one year old and a three year old tantruming, throwing stuff at me and bashing each other intermittently, I'm hungry for any information I can find about gentle parenting.  I totally get the principle - as parents we should not use aggressive, threatening or violent behaviour in order to tame or shame our kids into compliance.  If the toddler gets angry and hits the baby, we mustn't punish them by smacking, scary yelling, or sending them away to another room. We need to use these difficult moments as opportunities to help them understand their emotions, and learn how to deal with their feelings.  We need to show them that it's ok to be angry, but not ok to hit.  We need to help them feel accepted in their emotional turmoil, and to find ways through it and out of it. Rather than joining them in their state of shouting-hitting-out-of-controlness, we need to stay calm, and 'model' for them qualities of kindness, gentleness and forgiveness that they can then adopt for themselves.  In short, instead of telling our children how to behave, we need to show them how to behave.

That's the plan, anyway, but like all the best laid plans, it doesn't always come together, at least not in my house anyway.  In spite of the fact that I am a trained therapist, have read a whole heap of psychology books, another few dozen parenting manuals, had some therapy, thought a lot, and subscribe totally to the gentle parenting approach, I still found myself in my kitchen, only just this afternoon, yelling, "Be Gentle To Your Sister Or You Won't Get An Ice Cream!", at the top of my lungs as the dog ran for cover.

Don't get me wrong, most of the time, I manage to model to my children some degree of emotional intelligence. I try to help them with their feelings. I try to be kind and patient. I don't use time out, I don't shout, I don't threaten. I stay uber calm. Most of the time. But once in a while, if you drop by unexpectedly, you might just find me red-faced, hair awry, grumpily stamping around shouting, 'Pick all your stuff up off the floor!', or 'If you don't like it don't flipping well eat it then!'. And that's just to my partner. Later on I read another parenting article or two, and their stories of mothers who always seem to say things like, 'Hmm, you seem to have left a lot of toys around, do you have some emotions you need to talk through with me?', leave me feeling simultaneously inspired and guilty.

Several years ago, I was given an unusual birthday gift from an old friend, a set of 'Devil Sticks'.  This set of two batons and a decorated 'flower stick' is a circus juggling act, and the aim is to bat the flower stick from side to side with the batons, and then learn to spin and toss the flower stick as you get more and more advanced. As soon as I opened the present, my friend started to try to teach me the basics of how to use the sticks.  Of course, I was hopeless, and again and again, the sticks, so impressive in his hands, fell to the floor in mine. 'It's no good', I said to him, 'I'm afraid I'm totally useless as things like this. I'm completely mal-coordinated. I'll never be able to do it. Right gift. Wrong Person. Sorry'.  'Wait a minute wait a minute!', he urged me, 'You're missing the point. Every time you drop the sticks, every time you get it wrong, that's a brilliant thing! Because every time you make a mistake, you learn something. You get a little bit better. You might go on to make a new mistake, but you won't make that mistake again. So when you drop the sticks, you shouldn't feel disheartened! You should celebrate!'

This advice was a revelation to me. As an easily frustrated perfectionist, I felt liberated by the idea that mistakes were not a sign of weakness but of strength, not a sign of inability but of progress. I think of it often, not least at times when my parenting isn't as perfect as I'd like it to be. A moment of sleep-deprived short temper provides not only an opportunity for me to learn and improve, but also to model something else to my daughters - how to be imperfect, how to be authentic, and how to apologise. I can show them that sometimes it's ok to be angry, as long as you don't hit or intimidate, and that after you get angry, it's really good to say sorry if you have shouted, used harsh words or been unkind to anyone. I can show them that in our house, it's safe to express yourself passionately and it's safe to show all your feelings, even the 'bad' ones. I can show them that it's good to try, but that it's also ok to fail sometimes. I can show them that being human is complicated, and that the aim is to learn from our mistakes, rather than feel we should never make any. When the sticks fall to the ground, great things happen. As Leonard Cohen put it:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in.


  1. I was explaining this very thing to my older son today in relation to his spellings - and I really believe it. What I find hard as a parent is watching myself repeating the same mistakes (the shouting and generally NOT modelling how I'd like them to be behaving) over and over again - to the point where I wonder if I can actually break this cycle, or if they will end up doing the same with their children one day. Changing your own emotional responses is really hard.

  2. i really agree ruth. sometimes it seems (to me) to be almost impossible to be cool calm and collected, in spite of really really wanting to be. i have never smacked, but i have found myself thinking about doing it SO many times, simply because of learnt behaviour. i did write a post about sharing info about how to break these cycles, do please contribute if you can!
    meanwhile thanks for reading xxx

  3. Oh, my. That last lyric really got to me. "That's how the light gets in" indeed.

    I'm a yeller, and although I try so hard to find other ways (and I am learning) I still sometimes lose it and do a really big scary yell at my 2.5 year old sons. I did the other day as we were rushing to get out the door. I usually collect myself and apologize to my boys face to face but this time I had to take some time in the car as we were driving.

    After I did tell them I was sorry I yelled at them-- and while it's ok to have Big Feelings it is not ok to yell and scare someone-- my Gus said, "That's ok Mommy. I will hit the good button. Beeeep. There, now you are good."

    Well, that just about did me in. I simply told him thank you for helping me, and yes I was good now.

    The bigger the crack, the more light... right?


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