How to End the Blame Game
Most parents struggle with feeling inadequate or incompetent. One
key talent of parenthood is letting go of self-criticism and self-blame. How have you nurtured
acceptance of yourself, acknowledgment that you’ve always done the best you could – even if you
wanted to do better?
A few years back, my friend Helen asked me if I would teach a class for
parents who are always blowing up at their kids. I suggested she call around to her friends and
acquaintances to see if she could drum up enough interest for a class.
She was horrified. “Oh no,” she said. “You don’t understand, none of my friends do this, only me.”
suggested that she ask them anyway. A few days later she called me back: “I have a group all ready
to meet. Everyone I asked about it laughed and said they thought they were the only ones who felt
this way, and they couldn’t believe that I did!”
I often think about Helen and her friends
when I hear good, committed parents tell me how terrible they are. So I started collecting parents’
self-criticisms. We parents have a lot of them! Sometimes at lectures I will read this list out
loud, asking people to raise their hand for each one that applies to them. I frequently have to
raise my own hand – and not just to make people feel better.
As the list goes on, everyone is
soon laughing, looking around to see who else has their hands up, and nodding in support of one
another. I think that laughter is the best response to these types of harsh and hostile attacks on
ourselves. Our usual responses – believing them, replaying them constantly in our heads or piling up
evidence to “prove” they are true – haven’t made us better parents.
Some common things
that parents feel bad about are:
- not playing enough
- getting bored playing
(I have to raise my hand high on that one!)
- feeling that they have ruined their children
- not knowing how to discipline
- yelling too much
Sometimes the same people identify with opposite self-criticisms, such as “I didn’t
breastfeed long enough” and “I breastfed too long,” or “I’m too soft on my kids” and “I’m
too hard on my kids.” One of my recent favorites is this one: “I try to reason with my son too
much. (Nods of agreement.) And he’s 2 years old (wild laughter).”
I think that once these “terrible secrets” are spoken out loud, and we see that people we admire feel the same way, then
the heavy burden lifts and we can see once again that we are truly doing our best as parents. Sure,
there’s always room for improvement, but when you really have made a mistake, don’t beat yourself
up over it. Just apologize, or do whatever you need to do to repair the mistake. Then move on,
remembering that anyone who knew the whole story of your life would feel only compassion and
admiration for you, not criticism.
Letting go of self-criticism doesn’t mean that the
quality of our parenting doesn’t matter. But listening to that same old radio station, the one that
keeps playing that same lousy song, doesn’t help us or our children. So change the station! Find
one that celebrates your successes and accomplishments, or that treats you with tender sympathy –
not harsh put-downs – when you mess up.
Here’s a suggestion for transforming those familiar
old self-criticisms into something more constructive in your life:
- Make a list of the
so-called failures and inadequacies that keep popping into your mind.
- Use that
list as a guide to what you hold valuable in your life and in your parenting. For example, if you
beat yourself up over not spending enough time with your kids, then clearly you value spending time
together. If you scream at yourself for screaming at them, then you value treating children with
- Now, take this new list of values and good intentions, and ask
yourself a few questions. Where did this value come from? Who inspired it or modeled it for you? How
did you keep it alive when things were very tough? Maybe no one in your family growing up valued
respectfulness toward children or spending fun time together, but if those things exist inside you
as goals or values, then you must have seen them somewhere and recognized that this was how you
wanted to be as a parent.
- Ask yourself, “When have I acted in line with this
deeply held value of mine?” Keep asking yourself until you remember times when you took steps in
I predict that after this exercise you won’t just feel better as a
parent, you’ll also find yourself becoming the parent you’ve always wanted to be.
(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)