Reflecting on how you fail your kids can help you grow
My brother is a therapist, and he says his clients don’t talk much about being hurt by their parents.
Okay, that’s not true. Let me back up.
When I first started seeing a therapist, I had a lot to say about the things my parents had done wrong. I was doing so many things differently, and better than my parents had. I also had a lot to say about the things I had done wrong AS a parent, and how afraid I was that my kids would be justifiably angry at me for all the ways I had screwed up.
It’s a strange place to be in: Simultaneously recognising just how wrong your parents were, and being honest about how much it hurt you, and recognising just how wrong you often are yourself, and being honest about how much it hurts your kids. How do you even live that way? How do you move forward?
In my less fraught moments, I had to admit that, for all the stupid and awful things they did, my parents had certainly done better than their parents — and it was also likely that my grandparents had done better than their parents. I floated the idea that, if things kept up on this trajectory, and every generation improved on the previous one, then within a few decades, we’d be a race of gods. I’ll have to get back to you about how that works out.
We see what our parents have done wrong, and we don’t make that mistake. No, instead we invent brand new mistakes to make instead.
The pattern is a real one, though — up to a point. We see what our parents have done wrong, and we don’t make that mistake. No, instead we invent brand new mistakes to make instead. We would hate for our kids to miss out on all the delicious angst and resentment that should come along with childhood, so we make sure we come up with something for them to correct when they have kids of their own.
I’ve thought about it a lot, and there is a real answer to the question “How do you live that way?” — that is, there is a way to live with yourself when you’re simultaneously aware of how much your parents did wrong, and how much you’re doing wrong yourself.
There is a way to understand how you can be screwing up constantly, and how your parents could have screwed up constantly, and yet screw-ups isn’t all there is to your life and your relationships. The answer is: Humility. Specifically, humility that leads to sincere apologies and a resolve to change.
Here, please note that I do not mean to be glib about abuse. If you have suffered abuse or have perpetrated it, you’ll need more than an essay about humility to help you find the road to healing.
But what my brother the therapist really said about his clients is that they talk less about their parents hurting them, and more about their parents hurting them *and not seeming to notice or care that they did so.* That’s one thing that really makes the difference between wounds you can live with and wounds that you can’t.
People are actually fairly adaptable to adversity. It’s almost frightening how much people can get used to living with hardship and injustice. What they cannot process without doing horrible damage to their psyches, though, is the idea that it’s okay for this to be happening to them, because of who they are as people.
And this is where humility comes in — both on the part of the person who was wronged, and on the part of the person who has done wrong.
But all parents do some things wrong. All parents raise their kids in ways that are not optimal, and that can be improved upon, either because they don’t know better or because, being human, they do bad things sometimes. All parents lose their tempers, act selfishly, act harshly when mercy is called for, act leniently when sternness is called for, and so on. And most adult children can recognise eventually that their parents were human, and that these sins and mistakes are inevitable. The balance comes in humility.
Humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, or thinking that you deserve bad things, or thinking that you’re an irredeemable wretch for having done bad things. It means seeing badness clearly for what it is, and not letting it overwhelm you, either as a victim or as a perpetrator.
When you have humility as parents, you recognise that you do sometimes sin against your children, and you need to do better. When it’s appropriate, you should humbly acknowledge this to your kids. This lends dignity and even healing to both of you. And it can sort of reach backward into the past and illuminate what really happened in dark times of your own childhood.
Humility in parents allows you to acknowledge your sin and move forward, rather than drowning in despair and self-loathing for your flaws. And humility in a child of someone else (even an adult child), you can recognise that parents sometimes sin against you, but it’s not because you deserve it.
You can forgive your parents more readily, especially if they acknowledge their flaws, when you understand that they did what they did because they are sinners, and not because you’re fundamentally flawed or unlovable. And you can become a better parent yourself when you recognise that, to some degree, we are all behaving the way we do because of how we were treated as children, and when we have faced and processed that experience, we can have more control over how we act on it.
Becoming a more humble parent is a good way of realigning your conception of your own past. When you learn to sort out your own culpability as a sinful parent, it can help you sort out your lack of culpability as a wronged child. It can be strangely, unexpectedly healing of hurts you may not even realise you still have.
“I did a bad thing, and I’m sorry, and I will try to do better” is very often connected to “A bad thing was done to me, and it hurt me, but it doesn’t need to define me.” This is how we live as parents, without getting caught in a horrible parent-child-parent loop of resentment and regret: with the humility of understanding that we are more than those sins. Humility heals.
Another way to put it: When you work humbly to improve or heal your relationship with your children, it can restore some part of your relationship with your own parents, even if your parents are dead. You can’t change what was done to you as a child, but you can change what it has done to your understanding of yourself, and this, in turn, can help you change how you act toward your own children. And sometimes this shift will give you more sympathy toward your own parents, even when they did hurt you.
And it starts with humility, which means no lies, no minimising or excuses, but no hyperbole or self-loathing, either. This is because humility comes from authentic self-love, and self-love comes when we recognise we are beloved by God the Father. It restores our sense of self, it restores our power to repent, and it nurtures our ability to forgive.