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Several years ago during a casual conversation with my oldest son he said, "You expected me to be perfect when I was a kid."
Without pause I shot back, "Ben, that's not true."
Driving home from his house, I thought about his comment. His remark stung like a slap in the face. Though he'd laughed at the time, the hurt evident in his voice caused me to take a hard look at our family. How could he say that? Was it true? Did I really expect him to act perfect?
When I found the courage to give an honest answer to these questions, I had to admit he was right. With two younger siblings, I counted on Ben to be their example. As a mother, young and insecure, I dreamed of the picture-perfect family. You know the ones featured on magazine covers dressed in color coordinated outfits. Now I realized, in my quest to have the ideal family I'd put added pressure on Ben. Though I never said those exact words I reinforced the bar of perfection through my responses to him. A deep ache welled up inside of me. I wondered how my parenting had affected our other two children.
Our second son struggled in school and because he needed so much extra help his younger independent-minded sister didn't receive as much attention. With little reflection I tumbled into an abyss of parenting failures and missteps, until I stopped myself and looked at the whole picture.
Yes, I did say and do some wrong things as a parent. I jumped to conclusions and dished out punishments when I shouldn't have. I listened to misguided advice. And yes, I even lost my temper and yelled. But I also did a lot of things right.
Unfortunately, with raising kids there is no practice run. As much as parents would like to, we can't go back and undo the hurts we've caused. But we can move forward.
The steps below are the same ones we used in our family to help heal those unintended hurts. I hope they will inspire you to take the initiative with your children to address the pain of the past. Perhaps they can restore and deepen your relationships.
Acknowledge - Acknowledge the mistakes you made as a parent. When I told myself the truth, then I was able to take responsibility for those areas where I'd failed. This is the first step in cutting yourself loose from guilt.
Pray - God cares about relationships. I prayed for his guidance and the right words. After doing this I was ready to talk to my children.
Face to Face - Meet with your son or daughter during a time that works with his or her schedule. I met with Ben at his house. When I spoke with my daughter, we found a quiet booth in a restaurant and talked over lunch.
Ask for Forgiveness - Ask them to forgive you and name specific things you know hurt them. I asked Ben to forgive me for expecting perfection from him. I didn't make excuses. I told him I didn't realize at the time how my insecurities as a parent had affected him as a little boy. Now I understood the pain I'd caused and asked his forgiveness. If there is something they don't feel they can forgive right now, don't press them. There may be an opportunity to address that issue in the future.
Say I love you - I said to all three of my children, "I love you. No matter what you do or where life takes you, I will always love you." Regardless of their age, our kids need to hear from us that our love for them will never change. If you're not used to saying these words, you may feel awkward at first, but fight that feeling and say them anyway.
Is There More? - Ask if there is anything else they want to discuss you might have missed. Be aware, you may hear some things that surprise you. Resist the urge to defend, and listen to their need. Examine what they say. Is it true? Respond with love and compassion. When we allow our child to express their thoughts, without fear of rejection, it opens the door for a more open honest relationship. And isn't that what we want from our kids no matter how old they are?
Invite - Extend an invitation to meet again. Then set a time frame, in two weeks, a month, whatever works. If they say yes, be sure you call at the specified time to make arrangements. If they say no, respect their decision and give them the space they're asking for before you make a second attempt.
The next time you get together suggest a place you both might enjoy.
When I took Ben out, he chose to go to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. He owns a landscape company so he likes to stay current on the latest in plants and garden design. As we toured the display gardens, I learned about his business, the plants he likes to work with, even his favorite flowers and colors. When we'd seen all there was to see, I took him to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory.
We laughed and visited while we ate cashew chicken and chocolate cheese cake. Ben protested when I paid for lunch, he makes a lot more than we do. "The money doesn't matter," I said. "This has truly been my pleasure to spend this time with you."
Set Future Dates - Since the garden show, Ben and I have gone out numerous times. Sometimes we catch a movie, and sometimes we meet for lunch near one of his job sites. My husband and I have made it a priority to take each of our adult children out at least once a year.
As for me, I've gained a bit of wisdom over the years and have abandoned the notion of "picture-perfect." Instead, I focus on building strong healthy relationships with our adult children and so can you.
**Note: "Picture Perfect" appears in the summer 2014 issue of Christian Living in the Mature Years magazine.
© 2013 Kathleen Kohler