The last thing that most parents want is to say or do something that hurts their kids. Growing up is so hard, and our kids rely on us to show them the way. Navigating parenthood is hard, too, and unfortunately, as we try our hardest to make it through, there are times when your kid might not tell you that you're hurting them, and they are not always obvious to them (or you).
I try really hard to raise my children to love themselves, be kind to others, and do the right thing. Unfortunately, for all involved, I screw up all of the time. Just a few weeks ago, I realized that my 7-year-old daughter was keeping her spelling test scores from me, because she didn't want me to know that she didn't get a perfect grade. My heart broke. I couldn't remember telling my daughter she had to be perfect. I don't want her to think that at all, but I had inadvertently shared that value with her. It's taken weeks for her to be able to understand that I expect and appreciate effort, not perfection.
How do we, as parents, avoid hurting our kids, if our kids don't tell us we're hurting them? For me, it's taken some serious reflection and honesty with myself and with my kids, trial and error, and apologizing when I make mistakes. It helps that my daughter and I are now focused on communicating with each other, both good and bad thoughts and feelings, and trusting each other to fix things when we mess up. In other words, it's not too late. You can change things for the better, starting today. Forgive yourself, and really listen to what your kids are telling you, whether they use words or not.
When You Tickle Them
I have always hated being tickled, so I have no idea why I tickled my kids when they were babies and toddlers. Maybe it was the addictive sound of their giggles. The problem with tickling is that kids don't always know how to tell you to stop. It may feel good and bad at the same time, they want to please you, but laughter isn't always a sign of having fun. Also, tickling can be used by abusers to groom children and gain their trust and control of their bodies.
Now that I know the aforementioned things, I don't tickle my kids. I let them know that they have a right to complete bodily autonomy, and no one should touch them without their consent. We use and respect the word "stop" in our home always.
When You Tell Them Not To Cry
Kids have the right to feel and express emotions. If they feel sad, we shouldn't tell them not to cry.
Honestly, I have done it. It's so hard to see your child cry and want them to feel better, but telling them, "Everything is OK," when they feel the opposite, is a form of gaslighting and essentially invalidates their emotions. Instead, try, "I'm here. Get it all out. It's OK to cry when you feel sad. I cry, too, sometimes." And if you have a boy child, please, please, please don't tell them that crying makes them a "girl," that's insulting to both boys and girls.
When You Force Gender Roles
I am so over gender roles. It's OK for girls to like sports and boys to like dolls. Seriously. There are no "girl toys" or "boy colors." Gender is a social construct. So, when you expect your child to like certain things because of their assigned gender, and they don't like those things, they can feel shame or confusion. It really hurts. What if they don't end up identifying as that gender or any gender at all? It will be really hard for them to live up to your expectations.
When You Are Heteronormative
Speaking of gender roles, can we please stop viewing our children and their future through heteronormative glasses? Just say no to referring to your son as a ladies' man or your daughter's future spouse as Mr. Right. Gross.
When You Don't Take Time To Really Listen To Them
Yesterday, I was painting my kids' rooms with them. It was so fun. And by "it was so fun," I mean absolute hell on earth. My daughter wanted to express herself artistically, and I wanted to avoid getting paint on the floor. What was supposed to be a bonding session turned into an hour of stressful frustration for both of us, and she ended up running out of the room crying while simultaneously slamming the door (seven going on 17). When I finally came to my senses and let her tell me her wants and needs, we had way more fun.
When You Criticize Them
Let's revisit my daughter's spelling test stress. I realized that she really took it to heart when she thought that she wasn't living up to my expectations. We try so hard to praise and reward good behavior and to either ignore bad behavior or let them know that no one is perfect all of the time, which is kind of hard to do when you don't believe it for yourself. Try not to be a perfectionist, to criticize your body, or to expect perfection (from yourself or others) all of the time. Your kids are listening.
When You Make Them Show Affection
Kids shouldn't have to kiss, hug, or be kissed and hugged by anyone they don't want to. Period. It's not OK to force consent. In fact, forced consent isn't consent at all. Think about this the next time you tell your child they have to give grandma a kiss. Instead, phrase it as a question and offer other options so they know you are OK with what whatever they decide to do.
When You Compare Them To Their Sibling
I can still hear the echo of comments like, "Why can't you be more like your sister?" in my head. I will never forget how hard it was to be compared to and to compare myself to her. Children develop at different rates, have different abilities, and different interests. It's so totally unfair to compare them to each other, and they may never tell you how much it hurts.
When You Don't Forgive Their Mistakes
These are my mantras for boosting my kids (and myself) up when we screw up:
"Each day is a new day."
"Everyone makes mistakes."
"I forgive you."
"No one is perfect."
"Let's try again tomorrow."
When You Yell
I have to work on this one every day. It's hard. Kids can be so darned frustrating, obstinate, and stubborn. I wonder where they get that from...
But I digress.
Research shows that yelling at your kids won't change their behavior, and may even hurt them as much as spanking or physical violence, resulting in depression and aggression. I try to curb yelling by walking out of the room or pouring myself a glass of wine. Fortunately, every day is a new day.
When You Spank Them Or Use Physical Discipline
I never told my parents how much spanking hurt me, physically and mentally. It bruised my trust in them and made it so hard to believe them when they told me I was good. I don't ever want my kids to associate me with pain or punishment, and I don't want them to listen to me because they fear me. Instead, I want to teach them to do the right things because they are the right things to do.
I don't spank my kids, but there are times when it has seemed tempting or people have suggested it when my peaceful approach has failed. I have read countless articles about the negative impacts physical discipline can have on children, well into adulthood, and have made a commitment to do the best I can to be a peaceful parent.
Fortunately for me, my kids are extremely cute and I have plenty of wine. And of course, when I screw up, tomorrow is a new day, with new opportunities to do better for them and for me.