I wave as the bus drives away. I force a smile across my tear-stained face.
My daughter’s face is plastered to the bus window. She looks like she’s close to tears too.
I fight an urge to run after the bus, flag it down, and pull her into one last tight hug.
Our morning was rough. Actually, most school mornings are rough. My daughter despises the mundane tasks of lunch-packing, doing homework, and finding clean socks. The routine cramps her creativity and fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants personality. And so each morning, I brace myself for what’s to come.
Though the clock says she has twenty minutes until the bus arrives, the panic inside her builds. She feels rushed and stressed. This inner turmoil soon boils outward; she’s snapping at her sisters, demanding help with breakfast, and exploding at a minor misunderstanding.
Some days I can stay calm and supportive. I know she’s just feeling overwhelmed. And I’m able to resist responding back with the same tone she’s using with me.
But today I am tired. I know she is having a hard time, but my own exhaustion catches up with me. “It’s not a big deal!” I say, exasperated. “Whatever socks you can find are fine! Just get moving!”
Those words hit her like a ton of bricks. It is a big deal to her. And instead of motivating her, telling her to hurry up causes her to slam on the brakes.
“I’m not going!” she yells back, digging in her heels.
“Yes, you are. Come on. It’s OK. You’ll make it to the bus on time . . .” My voice wavers between gentle and about to lose my cool.
Somehow we make it to the bus stop. I do my best to be cheerful: “Look for the positive! It’s a beautiful day!” But I know these platitudes only minimize the complicated feelings she has inside.
I fold her into a tight bear hug as the bus approaches.
On days like these, my inner parenting voice whispers, “You shouldn’t have rushed to get her on the bus today. She needed you. She was obviously upset.”
Initially, I brush it aside. Clearly this morning was not a complete failure, right? She got on the bus, we ended on good terms, and I didn’t yell at the top of my lungs. But the voice is persistent: “You should have . . .” or “You shouldn’t have . . .” or “How could you . . . ?”
And the spiral begins: “I shouldn’t have put her on the bus. I wasn’t in tune with her emotions. She needed me. I let her down.”
“I did the best I could” becomes “I am a failure.”
“I made a mistake” becomes “I am a mistake.”
In an instant, a normal parenting challenge leaves me feeling completely flawed. Guilt turns to shame.
On the surface, we all know perfection is impossible to achieve. When our toddlers fall while learning to walk, we say, “Oops! Up you go. Try again!”
But when it comes to parenting—our parenting—the story we tell ourselves is a bit different.
This story tends to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. It carries an unspoken expectation of perfection. We measure ourselves by our behavior and by the behavior of our children. If you lose your cool instead of staying calm just once, it wipes out all those other times you were able to stay calm in the heat of the moment. If your child melts down at the end of a playdate, you feel a nagging tug as if something you did (or failed to do) caused it.
Rather than seeing these moments as learning opportunities or normal developmental stages, we keep lists of our mistakes. In quiet moments, this “evidence” seems to pile up against us. Times we should have comforted when instead we punished. Situations where we unfairly judged the circumstances without knowing the facts. Places we missed opportunities to show love and criticized instead. It’s easy to see how shame can take hold. Over time, we start believing the lie that says, “I’m a failure.”
Healthy guilt enables us to take responsibility, admit our flaws, and move forward. “I’m sorry I lost my cool with you. It was wrong of me to overreact like that.” Hugs all around, and everyone moves forward in a positive direction.
Unhealthy guilt moves quickly to shame. Shame is the desire to hide true feelings for fear that you will be unlovable. Shame researcher Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” While guilt says, “I made a mistake,” shame says, “I am a mistake.”
Confident parenting requires a willingness to look at our own behavior. It insists that we honestly take stock of our thoughts, words, and actions. It assumes that you have the desire to use guilt in a healthy way and push through those lonely, isolating, uncomfortable feelings of shame to make changes.
This is not easy.
If you’ve never named that little voice in your head that makes you doubt if you’re a “good enough” parent, welcome to shame. If you’ve been stuck in a shame spiral for years, you may worry that there’s no way out. It’s true that shame is a powerful force and that it takes work to silence those dishonest messages. But committing to breaking the cycle of shame is one of the best gifts we can give our children. It starts with you. Deciding today that you will no longer define yourself, your parenting, or your worth through the lens of shame—as a failure or a mistake. Instead, embracing the fact that you are worthy of love simply because you’re you.
Shame wants to keep you stuck, hidden, disconnected from a community. But here’s the truth: your kids don’t need perfect parents. You don’t have to create the perfect solution, say the exact right thing, or maintain complete neutrality in every argument. In fact, messy, busy, forgetful, angry, anxious, impulsive kids can find a lot of comfort in knowing they are not the only ones who have things to learn.
When your kids see you embracing imperfection and refusing to be paralyzed by shame, you give them permission to see mistakes as part of the growing-up process rather than something that needs to be hidden, pushed down, or perfected in order to be loved. In other words, you keep them from becoming entangled in their own shame spiral.
The fact that you make a mistake doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong. Or that the information in this book doesn’t work. Or that YOU are a mistake. It means you’re imperfect. And so are your kids. Sure, there are things we can improve on, which is why you’re reading this, I assume. But we don’t want to fall prey to the extreme view that the only way we measure success is by never showing a big emotion again or avoiding conflict at all costs.
Parenting from a healthier, more realistic perspective is a commitment. It’s an opportunity for you to say, “I’m not going to have this all figured out right away, and that’s OK. In fact, I’m never going to do this 100 percent perfectly, and that’s OK too. I can learn from my mistakes and move forward in a positive direction.”
I call this grace-based parenting.
“Grace” means being abundantly generous with yourself and others. Recognizing we all struggle and make mistakes. That love doesn’t require perfection. Being quick to take responsibility for our part, focusing on connection rather than being “right,” working to repair the relationship and forgive.
Of course, some may say this mindset ignores wrongdoing. Or that it’s too permissive or minimizes sinful behavior.
In my faith background, there was a lot of focus on sin. We were encouraged to meditate on the things we did wrong, the ways we hurt others, and how we disrupted the relationship between ourselves and God. I was great at listing my failures. I knew exactly what I had done wrong. In fact, I could write a detailed list for you on the spot. On the outside, I was a “good kid.” On the inside, I thought of myself as a mistake, as the culmination of all my “failures.” Instead of turning me toward repentance, it dug me deeper into shame.
Now looking back, I realize that by focusing so much on my sin, I missed the concept of grace. The knowledge that I am loved and cherished in my messiness. That it is not my consistent imperfection that nailed Jesus to the cross, but his love for me in spite of this imperfection. It’s through this love that I can take an honest look at my sin and repent rather than admitting it out of shame. Your faith upbringing may have been very different—if you grew up with faith at all. Regardless, most of us picked up an unhealthy focus on our faults when what we really need as parents is grace—for ourselves and for our kids.
A quote from parenting expert Pam Leo is making the rounds on social media. It says, “We can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse.” We cannot start by pointing out our children’s flaws and imperfections and expect them to make a healthy change in behavior. We need to start with connection. We need to start with love. We need to be willing to give them grace first—even before they change their behaviors.
Your kids are going to make mistakes. They are going to test the limits and engage in power struggles. They are going to act out when their brain is in panic mode. Grace-based parenting doesn’t mean we can’t hold a boundary or set a limit. It’s not one or the other; it’s both. It’s grace and love and boundaries and safety.
When we start with grace, we say, “You are valuable to me. The relationship I have with you is more important than being right or having the last word.” We build a bridge. We set a foundation of trust. Our kids begin to learn that it’s safe to be honest, it’s safe to apologize, and it’s safe to make mistakes because our love isn’t based on their perfection.
Grace-based parenting doesn’t mean glossing over things to only focus on the good; rather, it’s to give ourselves a clear picture. A picture defined by truth, not by shame. When we lose our tempers, we recognize the voice in our head that whispers, “Failure. Failure. How could you do that again?!” And we challenge it and gently rephrase it as “OK. That got offtrack quickly. I am feeling overwhelmed by my child’s big feelings. That’s a normal response in this situation. What do I need to do to get back to feeling calm so I can make this right with him?”
You are imperfect. So are your kids. It’s time to embrace imperfection and cling to grace so you can shed the weight of shame and parent your kids with confidence.
This is an excerpt from It Starts with You chapter 1: “Parenting without Shame.”