Forgiving Children is Easier Than Forgiving Ourselves.
When our children become teenagers, every day is a chance to forgive them their human imperfections. The lost jackets and phones and textbooks. The ugly words said in anger or frustration. The mess they leave in their wake. The bad grades or missing assignments or lies told in desperation. There is so much to forgive, even as we maintain their boundaries and reinforce the rules of decent human behavior.
Like artists who trust the messy process of creating a masterpiece, we know we must make peace with our children's imperfections. It's not always easy, but in general, we get the concept. We try to forgive our children the awkward fits and starts they will make as they emerge from the cocoon of adolescence into the fully realized wings of their adulthood. Forgiveness. Yes. Imperfection. Yes. These are the lullabies we sing to ourselves when things get really ugly during the teenaged years.
Parents Get Lots of Practice.
It's more difficult to forgive ourselves. Lucky for all parents of teenagers, Mother Nature affords us an excellent opportunity to practice. She gives us teenagers who resent our very identities, who will often tell us exactly how lame we are, who cause us to question the core of our value (if we let them).
Here's the truth: parents, we cannot win. No matter how hard we try, no matter the purity of our intentions or the pedigree of the parenting advice we read, we will mess it up. One example gets at the core of the issue. I give you:
Conditional vs. Unconditional Love: A Study in Why Parents Cannot Win
Some children (and adults) are truly wounded by a sense of conditional love from their parents. We know many people who live in fear of failing, who shuffle under the weight of parental expectations. They fear no one really knows them. These souls seek to be good enough--or accomplished enough or beautiful enough--to earn the love they seek.
On the other hand, I know just as many teenagers (and adults) struggling with unconditional love. These people reject praise and are suspicious of compliments; they fear no one really knows them. They resent the parents (or others) who have told them they're great, no matter what. Often, these young people cultivate oppositional identities, act out in secret, or lose a sense of their own value. They do not trust an all-forgiving, all-encompassing, always-there love--perhaps because they feel they have not earned it.
Sometimes, the two examples above come from the very same families. The same parents, apparently identical upbringings, but opposite results.
Parents, we cannot win.
Do we throw our hands up and stop trying? Do we throw the teenager out with the filthy bathwater? Of course not. But it helps to know: until further notice, while raising our children, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Nothing we do will be perfect; we cannot manufacture an upbringing guaranteed to save our children from strife.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Chart a Careful Course.
What can we do? Start by forgiving ourselves--for not knowing how to do better, for failing to do our best sometimes--the way we would want our children to forgive themselves. Let us adopt the attitude of the artist, who trusts the imperfect process as well as the unique product. An artist's worst mistake is to let outside criticism alter the interior vision or the creative process. An artist knows imperfections can produce pure genius.
How can parents stay true to our course? Always, in every situation, get some distance and give yourself a wake-up call: KNOW-PROTECT-HONOR. Do I KNOW what's going on with this kid? Must I PROTECT this kid from any real and present danger? Can I HONOR this kid's unique process of growing up? If you are satisfied with your answers, trust the messy process, unfurl your sails, and carry on. You'll find the best course for you and your family. It will be rough, but it will be okay.
And If You Still Feel Guilty, Do This:
Forgive yourself like our new role model the artist, and if that doesn't work, put a little extra money aside each month for your child's eventual therapy. It may assuage some of the guilt you can't help feeling about how much you're screwing it up.
And--because sometimes good music helps us be more gentle with ourselves--listen as Mick and Keith lament our most ancient, human position: