Coming clean with our kids

by Kristin on April 28, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by madmolecule

I just read this great post by Elizabeth Ester about “coming clean” in regards to her struggle with exhaustion and depression. “I don’t need to pretend anymore,” she writes. “I used to live by formulas and idealism….I’m not going to cover my brokenness up with more formulas.”

As I was leaving an emphatic comment about how freeing it is to be open with the world about all of the cracks in your life, this thought also struck me, a clear blow to my heart: I might be open with the world about my struggles, but I’m also practiced at hiding my brokenness from the people that matter most—my kids.

Our best teaching is by example

It’s a strange dynamic, really. On one hand, my kids intuitively know my faults better than anyone else. They have witnessed me yelling and crying, distracted and rude, impatient and dismissive. In that sense, I don’t hide anything from them.

But on the other hand, I am constantly trying to protect my kids from my faults—to cover them up with something much more admirable and exemplary. After all, we know our children will do as we do, right? So we try to teach by example. I can’t be perfect all of the time, but I can be aware of my faults and try to soften and correct them as I go. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, as long as I’m honestly seeing myself through my kids’ eyes and trying to be a better person for their sake (and mine, too).

How the facade can do more harm than good

The problem comes when we try to present ourselves as this completely put together package—all of the fruits of the spirit wrapped up into one Wonder Mom. It’s a problem because it isn’t true. It isn’t even realistic. Yet it sets an expectation that our kids pick up on—one they might strive for and are sure to fail at.

Here’s an example. We played LOTS of games when I was growing up, but I was a notoriously poor sport. It was a recipe for weekly disaster. I can’t even imagine how many times my older brother agreed to play a game with me, hoping against hopes that maybe this time I wouldn’t throw a fit when he beat me.

As an adult, I’ve tried my best to work on that trait. We play a lot of games in our house, too, and I want my kids to see that I don’t mind losing—it’s just a game, after all. I want to pass down to them an air of casual fun rather than intense competition.

But despite my efforts, my youngest daughter, S, still seems to have the curse of the poor sport in her blood. Could it be hereditary? Or am I unwittingly letting remnants of my childhood leak out? Whatever it is, I suddenly realized that in this case my “teach by example” tactic wasn’t helping.

Our kids need to know they aren’t alone

“You don’t understand what it’s like to be me!” she cried the other day, which made me pause. I really do understand quite a lot about what it’s like to be her—I see so much of me, both good and not so good, in S. But clearly I’m not giving her enough glimpses of that sameness.

I immediately told S about what a poor sport I was as a kid. I told her how mad my brother used to get, and then how disgusted I would feel with myself after I had been a sore loser. I told her how I would get all determined to work on it—I  gave myself pep talks before playing a game, telling myself it didn’t matter if I lost, but then I would be overcome with frustration anyway, and get mad at myself all over again.

You should have seen S’s face as I “came clean” with her. There was so much relief, so much compassion, so much love. In fact, it was a reflection of the relief, compassion and love I was feeling.

“I wonder if it has something to do with you and I both being the youngest?” she suggested.

“You know what?” I said, “I bet it does. We’re always trying to prove our worth and keep up with people who are older, smarter and faster.”

She gave me a hug of the biggest proportion, and said “I love you soooo much, Mama.”

In that moment, we loved each other for who we are, flaws and all. And because we “came clean,” we were both able to feel blessedly less alone. That’s a lesson worthy of teaching by example.

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  • Chuck

    This is a beautiful piece of writing.

    I think it was C.S. Lewis who introduced me to the idea of strengths coming with their own weaknesses (or perhaps even the other way around). The idea being that pretty people can more easily be vain, smart people more arrogant, ambitious people more competitive, creative people more dismissive, etc. etc.

    S didn’t learn how to be a sore loser from you. She gained some strength of yours, some extreme aspect of your personality that is a positive, and it has this as a side effect. At least that’s my theory sitting here in Atlanta having never met either of you. :p

  • suzi w.

    there’s a line from a song, “He turns our weaknesses into his opportunities.” this looks like one of those times.


  • Joy Eggerichs

    I vividly remember when I was seven and my mom empathized with me and was on my side during a situation where I assumed she would just be “mom.” That has always stayed with me and we talk about it to this day…

  • Dave Thurston

    I wonder if empathy is even stronger than sympathy.

    Those parent/child “aha” moments are the best – when your child realizes that Dad is not perfect . . . but the world is still a pretty good place. And when I as a child realized, “Dad is not perfect . . . but the world is still a pretty good place.”

  • Ray Hollenbach

    It’s such a balancing act, Kristin. We owe our children honesty and integrity, and we owe them protection as well. Too often we try to cover our weaknesses under the guise of protecting them; less often we share the truth in a way that results in fear instead of comfort. Your sweet story reminds us of our need for guidance as parents–we guide our children, but who guides us?

    I’ve often complained to God, “Why did you entrust these children to me? What do I know?” It seems like a crazy way to run a railroad, but for some reason God is apparently content to let us shape our children’s lives. I have complained more than once that He’s making a big mistake, but apparently He believes even our shortcomings are the tools of his choosing.

  • Kristin T.

    Chuck, that seems absolutely true—strengths and weaknesses go hand in hand. Every time there’s some part of ourselves we’d love to banish, we need to realize that we’d probably lose something of value in the process. It’s a trade-off. Maybe that’s why the very trait we’re drawn to in a friend or spouse can often be the thing that drives us nuts! Anyway, I like your theory (and that C.S. Lewis guy was pretty darn smart, too).

    suzi, yeah, it sure keeps us humble, doesn’t it? I’d so much rather be a fabulous example for my kids, at all times, and only pass down the best genes to them. :)

    Joy, isn’t empathy powerful? My mom has always been a pro at it. Maybe she didn’t always understand where I was coming from—we are different in many ways—but she always took the time to try.

    Dave, good to hear from you! I do think empathy is stronger than sympathy. It takes more time and effort, too. There is an approach to marriage counseling that focuses entirely on one person taking the time to really describe how a certain situation makes them feel, until the other person is able to say “I think I understand how you feel.” That’s the entire goal—to be able to say those words, and if you can’t truly say them, then you keep asking questions and listening until you can. It isn’t a debate or a trial or an opportunity to make excuses. It’s just about one person nailing down their feelings until the other person gets it. Seems like empathy to me, and it seems possible that it could save a marriage and even the world.

    Ray, why does life have to involve so many darn balancing acts? It’s exhausting! But I love the idea that God believes in my ability to parent, even if I feel like I’m making it up as I go along. And this is just an amazing truth, in parenting and all of life: “…apparently He believes even our shortcomings are the tools of his choosing.”

  • ed cyzewski

    Ah, the redemption that comes via shared brokenness. The best part is that you’ve both taken a step forward after having that conversation.

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  • Blond Girl

    Your pen speaks truth! Just last week I sat down with Sweet Girl and we talked about how her actions speak much louder than her words about what is important to her. It didn’t take me long to realize that I could be speaking to her – or to myself. We both have much to learn in the this area.