I have come up short as a father on any number of occasions. I once put my bare-footed three-year-old daughter in the snow on a cold, winter night because she repeatedly stripped off the socks I had put on her. Another time, I slammed down a spaghetti bowl and screamed at my two-year-old when he couldn’t get him to eat. I am not proud of these moments. But the end of the day, I believe that so much of parenting is a series of judgement calls, and that mistakes are inevitable. Frustration, anger, overrreactions, moments of weakness, and the occasional contest of wills between a grown adult and a 3 year old produce situations with a surprisingly fine line between good parenting and outright cruelty. For example:
One time when my two oldest children were about 5 and 3, we paid a surprise visit to my wife at the office. It was fairly late at night — 10 p.m. — and past the kids’ normal bedtime. We stayed only a short time and then headed for the door. My daughter started crying and stomping her feet that she didn’t want to go home. She kept it up for the entire drive home–about 20 minutes. When I pulled into the driveway, she was still yelling that she wasn’t going in the house. Many parents would chalk this behavior up to an overly tired child in meltdown. But I had had enough. I told her that if she didn’t want to go in the house, she could sit under a tree in our front yard. It was a cold and windy night and her jacket was not thick enough to keep her warm. She walked over to the tree and defiantly sat down. I hustled my oldest into the house and turned out the lights to give my daughter the impression that we’d left her out there and gone to bed. Then I crouched down and secretly watched from the kitchen window to see what she would do next. She sat there with her knees huddled to her chin, shivering. It seemed like an eternity but was probably about five minutes. Meanwhile, my son begged me to go out and rescue her. I refused. I wanted her to realize that she put herself into the position and only she could get herself out of it. I basically wanted unconditional surrender from my hard-headed three year old. At last she got up and walked slowly toward the door. Relief. But she then thought better of it and she circled back to the tree. Still, I left her out there in the cold. A few minutes later, her willpower collapsed totally and she came rushing to the door, sobbing. I brought her in, hugged her, and put her in bed. At the time I felt fine –even good — about how I handled the situation. Within days, though, I was agonizing over it. I asked friends who are also parents of young children whether they thought I was too cruel. In hindsight 7 years later, I honestly don’t know if I did the right thing.
In my 11 years as a parent, I have at times struggled mightily to raise my four little miracles. Yet many of us put a happy face on the situation and are loathe to talk about the difficult times when we suddenly lost our cool or let a little thing blow up into an all-out war. I believe, instead, we should realize that parenting is really just a giant, extended game of Trial and Error. We should accept that mistakes are all a part of the process, be open about them, and be more forgiving of ourselves and our spouses when the inevitable happens. The goal of parent is not to make sure that every meal is eaten within the alloted time or that every bed time is the picture of acceptance and tranquility. The ultimate task of every parent is to take responsibility for shaping our children into kind, thoughtful people capable of learning from mistakes and making good decisions when nobody is watching. That means that we as parents have to be willing to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them if we are to have any hope that our children will do the same.