I’ve been at this parenting thing for a decade now. I don’t know about you but I struggle almost daily and often feel like a total failure.
Parenting is hard, man, and anyone who says otherwise I’m willing to bet does not have kids. And the most bizarre thing about it is that, unlike most skills or processes in life, this one does not seem to get easier with time and you don’t necessarily feel like you are getting better with practice. In fact, it seems to get harder in some ways.
Sure, the kids are more independent and you don’t have to change their diaper, feed them, watch their every move. But they are smarter, sassier, require logical explanations, ask difficult questions, call you on your junk and are, overall, more difficult human beings to live with.
It can be exhausting.
My 10-year-old daughter has entered puberty. (Run for cover!) I never knew it could start this early but the pediatrician says it is not unheard of for kids as young as 8 to have signs of going through “the change.” Isabel is fully emerged in this metamorphosis from little girl to demon child teen. I told her she is like a roller-coaster: one minute she is happy, affectionate, interesting and the next minute, literally the next minute, she is grumpy, moody, defensive.
She told me I’m the same way. The nerve!
But, really, she is just. like. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The other day I was chatting with another mom. Isabel came up to me, laced her fingers with mine and laid her head on my shoulder. By the time I turn my head to kiss the top of hers, she let go with a “Humph!” crossed her arms and stomped her foot. The other mom and I just burst out laughing (which didn’t help, by the way) because it was an epitome moment: the epitome of living with a pre-teen girl.
Not long ago, after a day particularly difficult to navigate, I was begging God to spare me the next eight years of my life and bargaining about what I would trade with him (I’ll be willing to go all gray, Lord, if I could wake up one morning and it be 2024) when the Perfect Parent reminded me about the power of words.
See, in my house we say a lot of words every day. Noah, the 8-year old, uses a lot of words to tell me all his thoughts. All. of. them. The boy talks non-stop to me, to Isabel, to the dog, to the wall. One of the most common phrases thrown around our house is: “Noah, can you please stop talking?!”
Isabel likes to argue so she uses lots of words to explain, describe, demonstrate, and dramatize why she is right and everyone else is wrong.
I talk Matt’s ears off when he gets home because, well, because he is the first adult I’ve seen in 12 hours and I have a lot to say, people!
And poor Matt, I’m sure he talks but with the other three never shutting up, we have not heard the sound of his voice since the early 2000s.
Anyway, words are important in the Johnson household.
But as we are learning to navigate the hormones, the fighting, the constant answering to “why” and “but…” and “mom!” I have learned that the three most important words we use in our house are the words “I’m sorry.”
They are healing. And magical.
Have you ever tried to keep fighting and yelling and being generally ugly to someone who has genuinely just said: “I’m sorry” to you? You look like a jerk!
So we teach our children the importance of apologizing. We talk about how it’s hard and how it’s embarrassing and how it may even make you madder to have to do so. But we do it because we love each other and we want to preserve the relationship with the person above being right or being mad.
But we started noticing that the kids would throw out: “Sooooorrryyyy!” at each other and then run to play.
Apology done. Check. Move on.
And we didn’t think they were being sincere (I know, we are such perceptive parents). So we make them do this whole, big apology thing. I can’t take credit for it but I honestly cannot remember where I read it (if you are reading this, creator of the apology, please forgive the plagiarism without citing).
In any case, it goes like this:
“I’m sorry for….” (describe the offense)
“This was wrong because…” (show understanding of how your behavior affected the other person)
“In the future I will…” (describe the change of heart and action that true repentance requires)
“Do you forgive me?” (ask to restore the relationship and invite the other person into the exchange)
It works well for the most part. My littler one usually needs help thinking about the middle two statements. He’s not at the empathy and creative problem-solving stage yet.
So we’ve been doing this for a while now, but recently it has become my bread and butter to cohabitate peacefully with my volcanic daughter.
We both mess up. A lot. And when she has to come to me and go through the whole process of apologizing I feel magnanimous and kind just like a queen. But when I have to go to her, let’s just say it’s far less pleasant.
But why wouldn’t I go to her? She is ten and I’m…well, not ten but she deserves the same respect and honor I expect from her to me. Moms must apologize to daughters. In doing so we are teaching them how and why and when and where and, more importantly, that apologizing is what you do when you hurt someone.
Anyone. Even someone smaller and less powerful than you.
The other day I told Isabel to go change out of her pajama bottoms so we could leave the house. I came around a bit later and she had the same shirt on and, what I assumed, were the same pajama bottoms. I flew off the handle and yelled: “I asked you to change your bottoms ten minutes ago and…”
And then…she stood up and showed me that she had, indeed, changed her bottoms. She didn’t say anything but her eyes rolled to the back of her head and they took five minutes to return to their sockets.
Now, I must confess that we allow eye rolling in our house. For two reasons: first, because we believe that everyone should be able to demonstrate their frustration at the world in some way, and eye rolling is better than disrespectful words, slamming doors, or walking away while you are still talking to them. Second, because I roll my eyes like a champion.
Do as I do, kind of thing.
Anyway, back to the story. I went to my room fuming. “I told her to change her bottoms and usually, she does not listen the first time. How was I supposed to know this time she would? Besides, she had it coming for all the times she disobeys. It’s a pattern with her so I was right to assume.”
But rationalize as I may, I knew I was wrong. I had unfairly accused her and raised my voice at her when she had obeyed me.
So out I went to do what is so hard but oh, so right:
“Isabel, I’m sorry for raising my voice at you about your pants. This was wrong because it made you feel angry with me for not believing you and assuming that you disobeyed. In the future, I will ask you if you obeyed me before I get angry unfairly. Do you forgive me?”
It wasn’t easy and it didn’t feel great but the ice melted between us right then and there. She felt valued and respected as a person. And I taught her by example how to humble yourself when you hurt someone.
The next few years will be hard, I know. There will be tears and despair and I’m sure Isabel will struggle as well. I’m not too worried, though, because I know we have a powerful weapon in our arsenal. We will mess up and we will treat each other unfairly and hurt each other’s feelings.
That’s part of parenting a teen, I’m told.
But we will not allow the hurt and anger to fester between us and to create distance between us. We know the healing words that bring hearts back together. And with God’s grace and help, we will humbly speak them over and over again, as needed.