“I don’t like Dad, I love you Mom!”
You don’t forget words like that; trust me, I know.
My son was seven or eight years old and we were on a short vacation with my parents when he made this proclamation to my wife. I was standing outside the bedroom door of the condo where we were staying, and my heart broke. I had obviously failed as a parent, the shame was overwhelming.
parenting Mistake: Dreams
From an early age I had looked forward to having a family, being a dad. I was on spring break in Florida as a college student, out on a fishing boat at sea, when I had the most delightful vision of a little boy–my future son–walking over to me and resting his arm on my knee. Perhaps I had been in the sun too long, but for me it was very real. I don’t think that this was the type of thing that my other male friends were envisioning on that trip.
Somehow I knew that my future wife and I would have a boy and I would name him after my own father. In the summer of 2007 that very thing came to pass. My dreams and visions had become reality. When I carried my son around in the grocery store I felt like I was holding a trophy. He was perfect! The spitting image of what I had always dreamed of and hoped for.
And there, right there, was my most profound parenting mistake. This was the fundamental misunderstanding that eventually precipitated in that crushing moment outside the bedroom door.
Parenting Mistake: Expectations
I had strong assumptions and expectations, some explicit and others subconscious, about who my little boy would be. My core assumption and expectation was that he would be just like me. As a child I was a “good” boy in all the ways that adults wanted little boys to be good. I was eager to please the authority figures in my life. I admired my dad above all and wanted to be just like him in every way. If ever I stepped out of line it only took the slightest glance of disappointment from my parents to discipline me.
Very early on I began to realize that my son was different, so very different! His behavior was never outside of the bounds of what would be considered normal or age appropriate, but when discipline was called for there was absolutely nothing that we could do that had any impact on him whatsoever! He wasn’t driven by a desire to please me or his mother, rather he was driven to be his own little person. Unfortunately, I often took that personally. I thought he was rebelling against me and that made me angry, and my response was to try even harder to make him into my own image.
Parenting Mistake: Acceptance
If I could travel back in time I think I would visit the hospital room in Chicago a day or two after my son was born. I would pick a moment when my wife was sleeping so as not to frighten her (she had been through enough already) and I would sit down next to me and whisper, “Listen, young man, that little child in your arms is his own unique person. Similar to you in ways, sure, but profoundly unique and different. Your job is not to shape him into your own image, but to provide him with a safe and secure relationship that will set him free to become who he is.”
Who knows if I would have gotten through to me, but the good news is that I did eventually learn this important lesson and made dramatic adjustments to my parenting approach. My son is so much more interesting and wonderful than the dreams and expectations that I had for him. He still prefers his mother, but he loves me too.
None of us really know how to be parents. We all make big mistakes along the way and learn as we go. Our kids don’t need us to be perfect, but they will occasionally need us to be vulnerable enough to acknowledge our mistakes and make adjustments.
I’m curious, if you could go back in time and visit yourself as a brand new parent, what message would you whisper?
This post was written by counseling intern Tony Metz. To learn more about Tony’s approach to counseling please call 217-231-1413. To read more about parenting read the following Posts 5 Ways to Connect With Your Son , Parenting Styles: What Works?