How Parenting My Daughter Taught Me How to Re-Parent Myself
My daughter looks almost exactly like me. Everywhere we go, I hear all about how she’s my “mini-me.” In terms of parenting, generally, this of course makes zero difference. What our children look like, whose body they come from, what genetic make-up they have has no bearing on the most important factor: the complete, total, and utter love we feel when we gaze upon their sweetly sleeping heads each night. But in this particular situation, that resemblance lead to a realization on my part that I think can be generalized to parenting overall.
First, a bit of personal history. I looked almost *exactly* like my mother. To the point kids would come to knock on the door, and when she’d answer they’d ask her if she could come out and play. She’d smile and say, “I can’t, but I’ll go get Kristy.” It was kind of scary, really. And wonderful, in lots of ways. For example, I thought my mom was the most beautiful woman in the world. Which, if you think about it, meant I must be beautiful, too. And my mom told me I was beautiful quite often.
But. She was critical of her own appearance. Too fat; too short; not pretty enough—you name the message that came at her (and pretty much every other woman—and man—in the country). And she would look into the mirror, mutter to herself how she wasn’t ______ enough, or too _______. And I would hear her. And I understood over time that meant I wasn’t beautiful, after all. I was also too ______, not ______ enough.
I think most of us in this modern age have heard the term “inner child.” This phrase has been explored in great detail in hordes of self-help books, expanded upon in psychology classes, and mocked on national television. No matter our connection or understanding or even acceptance of our own inner child, when we have a child of our own, it’s important to keep this in mind: our own inner critic will, no matter how we try to control for it, infect our child(ren).
My mom was very clear in her messages to me—I was beautiful. I was definitely _______ enough and not too _______ in any way. She loved me. Yet the messages she said to herself seeped through. And they became my messages. Whether it was about physical appearance, or talent or ability, or quality x, y, or z—those negative messages she said to herself were heard and internalized by me.
Fast forward to now, and the issue of “re-parenting.” This phrase is one heard a lot in psychology circles, and doesn’t necessarily have any judgment whatsoever of one’s parents or how they raised their children. What it addresses is how we speak to that inner child, how we talk to ourselves in those moments of frailty and failure, the messages we give ourselves when things aren’t going so well (and sometimes even when they are). If that voice is harsh, over-critical, destructive, and/or damaging, it’s time to stop and think. Is that how we would talk to our children?
That, right there, is the test. Are the words we say to ourselves the same ones we would say to our kids? When s/he forgets to pick up the laundry, or fails a test, or doesn’t make the team, or tries on clothes, do we want to tell her/him how stupid or lazy or ugly s/he is? I think for most of us the answer is a resounding, “NO!” Yet we use this language with ourselves. And that language creeps into our kids, insidious and harmful.
And this is how parenting my daughter has helped me re-parent myself. By focusing on how I communicate with her (and my son), I have gotten tremendous practice in giving gentle messages. I have noticed that, slowly, over the last 6 years or so, my messages to myself have softened. Instead of telling myself how stupid I am that I did _____, I tell myself mistakes happen and I need to find a way to make it better. Instead of looking in the mirror and thinking, “Ugh! Look how ____ I am!” I’m more likely to focus on something I love looking at, such as how my eyes are the same shape as my daughter’s, or my nose is like my son’s.
It feels better. In fact, it feels nice, having my inner voice be loving and gentle. And with some luck, that is the voice my children will internalize, in spite of any external messages to the contrary.