“You make me feel like I belong under the sun.” –Citizen Cope
I was not expecting to experience such an emotional response when Dr. Shefali Tsabary shared her video about parent shaming with me. It was the following words, found two minutes and twenty seconds into the video, that brought me to tears:
“I came to you so you could honor my soul, nurture my worth, and preserve my spirit. Yet it is you who annihilates my very essence in the name of parenting, in the name of love, in the name of teaching.”
Dr. Shefali then calls on parents to “become the person they are meant to be.” She describes it from a child’s perspective as:
The usher of my soul
Not too long ago, I was good at shaming my children. It wasn’t obvious. It was subtle. Exasperated breaths. Eye rolls. Belittling. Inducing guilt. Acting like they should know better. But they were children. They were learning, and I seemed to forget that.
I thought it was my job to teach them a lesson.
But what I was teaching them was that I could never be satisfied. I was teaching them to confide in someone else—someone who would be more understanding and less reactive. I was teaching them to strive for perfection, no matter the cost.
Although I’d improved on seeing the positives rather than the negatives in people and situations, there was still work to do. It was an intentional change in my approach to life that revealed exactly where further improvement was needed and more importantly, why.
When my family moved to a new state, I saw an opportunity to let go of some of the pressures I’d put on myself in my former community. I used the move as a chance to start over and give myself some breathing room. With less inner criticism on my appearance, productivity level, and societal contributions, I felt long-held stresses and unrealistic expectations wane. I felt lighter and happier than I had in my former community. One night I happened to ask my daughter if our new place was starting to feel like home. She said something I will never forget.
“I can breathe here.”
Yes, this was a less competitive community. Yes, unique differences were more widely accepted. Yes, there was more diversity. But I couldn’t help but believe it was the change in me that had most impacted my child’s ability to breathe. In my efforts to put less pressure on myself, I’d indirectly put less pressure on her. I’d given her more room to breathe, more freedom to be herself. And this space resulted in her ability to express important information to me. I was certain of one thing: As my child continued to grow and mature, I did not want to miss conversations like these.
I started paying more attention to the way I reacted to the way she did things (even if they were not as efficient or messier than the way I did them). I frequently reflected back on conversations and asked myself if I left her feeling better or worse after spending time with me. I noticed if certain words I used brought relief or worry to her face. These observations led to more change.
I began swallowing comments on her hairstyles and physique. I wasn’t so quick to dissuade or disagree when she talked about future plans or shared her opinion on things. I listened to her casual banter with no judgment, just presence. I knew that more serious topics would come from her lips someday, and I prayed she would confide in me.
Little did I know it would happen so soon.
One evening as she was getting ready for bed, words came from my child’s mouth that I never thought I’d hear. I felt like I could not breathe. I was sucker punched. I was greatly disappointed by her choice.
But she was telling me.
She was telling me.
This infraction was something she could have kept to herself and carried as a burden on her soul for many years. But just as I’d listened non-judgmentally to her commentary on cat toys and nail art the day before, I vowed to react in a way that kept this line of communication open for future conversations.
Before I spoke, I told myself:
Do not overreact.
Do not cry.
Do not threaten.
Do not belittle.
Do not act like you never made a mistake.
I then recalled the most shameful moment in life, and I said what I would have wanted to hear at the time.
“I am so glad you told me this,” I whispered to my distraught child. “Keeping it inside is harmful. You did the right thing by talking to me. I want you to know that other young people have made this same poor choice.”
Her lowly hanging head abruptly lifted. “They have?”
I saw pent up air expel from her chest as a weight was lifted. She was not the only one. She was not alone.
This was a pivotal moment. Although I would have had every right to punish her … to take away her freedoms … to lecture her on rights and wrongs, I didn’t.
I thought of my most shameful moment again. It was precisely the moment I didn’t need a lesson or a lecture. It was precisely the moment I needed to know my people would not desert me in my time of despair.
Now don’t get me wrong, I let my child know I was disappointed. I let her know she would have to earn back my trust. I let her know of some changes that would be made to protect her and prevent future issues. But I did not shame or forsake her in her time of need. I did not kick her while she was down. There will be plenty of other people to do that in her lifetime.
My child eventually fell into my arms crying. This brought me to the moment I’d been wondering about since she was small. Would I be able to say the most loving words when I was most disappointed? Would I be able to support her even when I felt betrayed? Would I be able to experience let down and resist the urge to push her away? Yes. Yes. I would.
“Listen,” I said firmly. “No matter what mistakes you make today, tomorrow, or throughout your life, I will always love you. I will never turn my back on you. Okay?”
In the moment I could have crushed her spirit, I supported her.
In the moment I could have made her doubt herself, I reminded her she was human.
In the moment I could have taught her a harsh lesson, I taught her a loving lesson … a trust lesson … a grace lesson.
I think about these lessons of love, trust, and grace when she chews with her mouth open, when she gets a low mark, when she forgets something important. I know her infractions will become more severe as she grows and so will the societal pressures, temptations, and curiosities. I’d only gotten one small taste of what is to come. When I think about teaching my child a lesson I want it to be one of love, forgiveness, and understanding. I want to be a safe haven, not a person to be feared or avoided, in times of despair.
I am far from a perfect parent. I do not always choose love. There are many words and reactions I wish I could take back. But today matters more than yesterday. And today, it is my hope to spread this healing message:
We have the power to teach our children a lesson.
We have the power to make them regret a poor choice.
We have the power to ensure they never forget what they’ve done.
But we also have the power to open a door for difficult future conversations.
We have the power to be a calm and supportive presence in their time of need.
We have the power to prevent a shameful experience from leaving a scar.
We have the power to prevent them from doing something permanent to stop the pain.
Let us not kick our children when they are down.
Let us reach out our hands and help them up.
Let us hug them to our chests and say, “I will not take my love away.”
Let us respond to their mistakes the way we’d want someone to respond to ours.
And in doing so, we might just become the person we are meant to be …
The guardian of her heart
The usher of his soul
The safe haven in a world too quick to shame and destroy what is most precious.
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