We all know that children are sponges. Their developing brains and impressionable psyches pick up everything. And as with sponges, it's not just the good clean stuff. They absorb the ick too. Parents aren't infallible people demonstrating only the best conduct. No. We're sometimes grumpy, overtired, petulant, sulky, angry, stressed or otherwise inappropriate. Kids absorb all of this and add it to their developing repertoire of behaviors. Our children become tiny mirrors showing us our worst selves. We see them set aside our best moments, our good parenting advice and wisdom, and instead assume our lowest personality traits.
In my house it's the yelling. I tell my kids all about using their words, treating others fairly, counting to ten, walking away. But then I lose my temper and I yell. Guess what they do when they get mad? They reflect. I see my own angry face made out in their little features, and it hurts. They shout out their frustrations, they take out their stress on one another, they act like me at my worst and I hate it more than anything.
Then comes the spiral of self-loathing. I shouldn't shout like that. I'm ruining the children. I am the worst mother. Other mothers don't do that. Why can't I control my temper? What is wrong with me? I will be better. I must be better. I need to be better so I can help them be better.
But I'm not better.
We talk it out, hug, apologize. But eventually, for one reason or another, I find myself losing my temper again. I might shout right into one of their little faces. Maybe they did something terrible. Maybe they didn't. Maybe it had nothing really to do with them. Surely other moms don't do this. Surely I am ruining my children.
And then they yell at me. They yell at each other. In my moments of calm clarity I tell them all the right things. I tell them that we are not to treat one another that way. I tell them that we are a family and we have to take care of each other. I tell them that feeling angry, frustrated, sad, stressed, worried, hungry or tired is no excuse for being mean. I do all this parenting expecting them to learn from it, but then I blow it all by acting exactly like a little kid myself.
I know that it has to start with me. I know that until I change, they won't. I can see it clearly. How can a mirror reflect what isn't there? Mirrors are honest whether we like what we see or not. Until I stop putting The Ugly in front of them, they will continue to reflect it. But it feels too hard. It's hard enough to get all of the basics done on a daily basis -- who has time, space and energy for major self-overhauls? So my pattern continues.
It isn't constant screaming in my house by any means. The time in between is filled with normal family thing -- we chat about our days; we cook and eat meals together; they play; they wreck the house; "we" clean the house; they watch TV. But eventually the constant noise creeps under my skin. The bickering -- so much bickering! The couch cushions strewn everywhere. The dropped milk. The careless swinging of a toy which inevitably smacks someone in the face. And I lose it. I yell. I scream for them to be quiet, to clean up, to stop fighting... And I feel like all those in-between moments are erased, undone. All that's left is mommy yelling. And so they yell. They continue to hold up that mirror showing me my worst. And it sucks.
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