When I fail as a parent

As soon as I opened the door, I could tell that it had been a day of battles at home. It looked like someone had taken our whole house, turned it upside down, and gave it good shake. Usually, I am greeted by my daughter running up to me happily and giving me a hug. The greeting on this day was seeing her with a furrowed brow and hands on her hips yelling in response to my wife, “I don’t want to!” I glanced over at my wife, and she gave me that wordless gaze that communicated, “I’m done. You’re up buddy.”

With confidence (or was it pride?), I took over, thinking that all that was needed was a dose of Daddy for things to start looking brighter. I pleasantly announced to my daughter, “Honey, it is time for dinner.” She snapped back, “Noooooo! I don’t want dinner!” Daddy was about to get humbled. It was a battle to get her in the chair. It was a battle to get her to stay in her chair. It was a battle to get her to take a bite of food. Every simple request was met with a meltdown that would have made you think we were cutting off her limbs.

And it didn’t end at the dinner table. “Ok. It’s time for a bath.” “Noooooo! I don’t want a bath!” It was a battle to get her in the tub. It was a battle to get her out of the tub. We couldn’t win. “It is time to put on your pajamas.” “Nooooo! I don’t want pajamas!” Same song, second verse, a little louder, a little worse.

By the time I finally got her in bed and closed the door, I took a deep breath. It was over…or so I thought. I did not even get to the bottom of the stairs before I heard her door slowly creak open. “Daddy, I’m thirsty!” Back up the stairs, then back down the stairs. “Daddy, I went potty in my diaper!” Back up, back down. I made it to the couch and laid there motionless, until I heard the thud of feet that were no longer where they should be. I stormed up to her room (making sure my steps were stomps so that she knew I was coming), opened the door, glared at her square in the eyes, and sternly stated, “GET.IN.YOUR.BED.RIGHT.NOW, or it will not be pretty!” I stormed out.

It was one of those moments where as I was reacting, there was a very small part of me that was saying, “Nick. Don’t do it. Don’t say it. That’s not right,” but I pushed on anyways. I scared her – I know I did. Her eyes were wide open, and she started to cry even before I was finished. And as soon as I got downstairs, I felt this wave of guilt rush over me. I knew better. I gave myself a few minutes, and then I went back upstairs to her room, opened the door, and sat down by her bed. “Honey, I am so sorry. I was wrong. I should not have yelled at you like that.” She said, “I’m sorry” as if she was the one apologizing. I said, “No. No. No. I am sorry. Daddy is sorry” and she said, “I’m sorry.” I realized in that moment that that was the first time I had ever apologized to her (but that was certainly not the first time I owed her an apology). She had never heard me apologize to her – it was not even in her frame of reference. She had only learned up to that point that when a rupture occurs in our relationship, it is her fault, and she is the one that owes the apology.

I want my children growing up recognizing that everyone makes mistakes – even Daddy – and that a relationship can be repaired. The best thing that I think I can do to impress this important truth in the hearts of my children is to model what it looks like to admit failures and mend the breaks that I make in our relationship. In Child-Parent Relationship Training (CPRT), this important principle is communicated in the following phrase: “What’s most important may not be what you do, but what you do after what you have done” (Landreth & Bratton, 2006). We will certainly make mistakes as parents, but these failures can actually contribute to the growth of our children and our relationship with them if we make efforts to repair what we have broken.

Nick Cornett, PhD, LMFT, LPC, Registered Play Therapist is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at John Brown University. His specialty areas include play therapy and marriage and family therapy.