Is there shame in being a shit parent? Yes. And guilt. And regret. And self-loathing. But it’s not the end of the story.
isn’t easy is fucking hard. There’s no sleeping in if you stay up late, you occasionally get another person’s poop on your fingers, and half your ice cream always gets stolen by someone a third your size.
But those are the easy struggles.
Sometimes you have a 4-year-old, virile monster who won’t settle down, refuses to relax during their bedtime stories, and keeps yelling for food and water when they literally just filled their bellies with both. And half my ice cream.
How I Know I’m Shit
It’s right about 45 minutes into that situation that I lose my shit.
As negative reinforcement for her already scrambled emotional-state (exhausted and playful at the same time) I take away a book each time she gets rowdy, then a stuffed animal, then they’re all gone, and she loses her back tickle.
Her emotional state deteriorates because I’ve just removed her bedtime routine entirely as a punishment for not following her bedtime routine. Great idea, Dad.
So she starts yelling and screaming in frustration, as toddlers sometimes do. So I threaten to put her things in the garbage. She doesn’t stop. Garbage bin: book. She screams.
Garbage book. Screams. Garbage book. Yells. Garbage stuffed pig. Screams. Garbage stuffed elephant. Wails. Garbage stuffed panda.
It doesn’t stop until we’re both mentally and physically exhausted and pass out upset with each other.
Then comes the morning. The wake-up routine goes perfectly well, and I take her to school.
On the public bus ride back to my home it hits me like a baseball bat: I’m a shit dad. I handled the previous night like a rookie.
Where do I go from here? I asked myself a question, “how to be a better parent?”
I took myself on a three-step process to right where I had wronged.
If you’re how to be a better parent, do what I did.
Take These Three Steps to Know How to Be a Better Parent
Step 1: Recognize It and Admit It.
Say it with me: “I did something shitty. I can do better.”
This is probably the hardest part because you have to own it. But taking that ownership and letting go of the idea that you’re a great parent is freeing up yourself to committing to better. You’ll set your goals higher for yourself because you know you can improve.
Once your goals have been refocused, step two is a bit easier.
Step 2: Act Sorry.
When learning how to be a better parent, it takes effort. When I got Auburn home from school, I had her books and her stuffed animals laid out on her bed.
She’s very perceptive, “I thought you threw these out!”
“I did. And that was wrong,” I put my hands on her cheeks so she would look me in the eyes. “I overreacted yesterday, and I’m sorry about that.”
I’m not sure exactly what was going through her mind at that moment, but I hope it was understanding. Understanding that I’m not perfect, and that’s okay, even though my reaction wasn’t. Understanding that I’m trying my best and I can admit when I’m wrong. Understanding that I love her, even if I don’t always show it.
The important thing here is that I’m not just saying I’m sorry, I’m acting sorry. Her books and animals were cleaned and placed nicely on her bed. I made eye contact with her while I sincerely apologized.
It goes a long way, and if you’ve set your new goals to reach that standard of recognizing and reconciling your mistakes, you’re already on the path to becoming a better parent.
That brings us to step three.
Step 3: Do better.
I’m not going to be using my negative reinforcement tactic of throwing away books and toys anymore. It’s counter-productive and only escalates the situation. I want to honestly know how to be a better parent.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that my next tactic is going to be a useful and effective one, but I’m going to try.
I’ve been reading about using fewer words and remaining nonchalant in times of stress; enacting those behaviors have been a different story, but I like to think I’m improving.
And that’s what step three is all about: doing better. It’s about making an effort by reading, exploring, and experimenting with what works for you.
All you have to do now is repeat steps 1-3 for the rest of your parenting life, and you should eventually be a substantial parental figure.