I lose my keys often. I text the words "Running 10 minutes late" more than I should. I fail to bring in all the bags of random kid crap from my car each night, so I'm constantly grabbing new bags and filling them with more random kid crap. I eat stuff that makes me feel lousy afterward. I overestimate the amount groceries we consume and am constantly tossing out food.
On more than one occasion, I've meekly asked parent-friends at the park, "Hey, did you happen to pack sunscreen?" (I can go on, sadly, but this little exercise isn't making me feel the best.)
I'm tempted look at my persistent failures and proclaim, "Ugh, I always do this. I'm a mess!" But then I look at my daughter and remember the mantras I'm always telling her.
If something isn't working, change what you're doing.
How can we be better next time?
Yes, it's hard, but keep going.
Stop and breathe.
And I feel like a complete fraud.
Writer K.J. Dell'Antonia, author of the forthcoming book How to be a Happier Parent, recently wrote in her newsletter how she has been trying to change the mental tapes that play "I'm so stupid!" and get to the root of her recurring mistakes. The part that strikes me the most: She's making sure her kids hear how she's doing it.
She writes that she burns nuts and garlic toast every single time she cooks them. After making the decision to, well, stop doing that, she started narrating exactly how she's changing for the better - in real time. While in the kitchen, she'll declare, "I'm toasting the nuts! I'm broiling the bread! I'm going to stand right here and not walk away because I'm not burning it! Even though I'm so bored! I'm not walking away!"
All day, every day, the struggles your kids face are real. And you can bet they will let you know about those said struggles. Maybe they can't figure out a homework problem. Or how to place the correct arm into the correct armhole of a jacket. Or maybe the moat of their LEGO palace does not look like the picture, and therefore it's all wrong, all of it.
It might sound a little strange, but the idea is that the concrete steps she's taking to solve her problems might seep into her kids' brains so that they will later know how to solve their own. "They hear us," Dell'Antonia writes. "Maybe, when they're 40, the voice inside their head will say 'take a deep breath' instead of 'you're such an idiot'."
My mum was always a dramatic narrator of her thoughts, and for better or worse, her outward voice eventually became my inner voice. (For better, she always asked herself aloud, "What are my goals for today?" which is something I now do, too.)
Kids need to see their parents struggle and how they're handling it. I can say to my daughter, "I'm going to try harder next time," after the 12-minute search for car keys, but what would be more valuable for both of us is a narration of the exact steps I'm taking to prevent my problems.
"I'm placing my keys right here in this designated spot so I'll always know where they are."
"I am taking multiple trips to the car to bring in the bags even though I just want to go inside and sit down."
"I'm packing a 'go-bag' with sunscreen and water and snacks right now so we won't have to do it at the last minute."
Kids are developing an inner dialogue, one that will stay with them when they face peer pressure, when they decide whether to study or play video games in university, and when they choose who to let into their lives. By changing your own self-talk, you're slowly changing theirs.