Nancy Colier
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Guilty Moms: Letting Your Child Not Get What They Want

Pamela’s 14-year-old daughter is leaving for camp in two weeks. Pamela decided not to plan anything specific for the time, figuring her daughter could arrange dates with her friends and find things to do. Pamela sounds at ease with her decision and even proud of it. She touts the importance of teaching her daughter to be imaginative and resourceful. It all sounds good, but underneath Pamela’s “ease” she’s racked with guilt and running herself over the coals for being a bad mom.

Have you ever felt guilty because you’re not entertaining your child and providing them with unlimited activities to keep them happy and engaged, in a state of constant fun and growth. Do you ever feel terrible for not leaving your schedule wide open so as to be available in the off chance they might want to hang out with you? Do you feel like a neglectful parent for having your own needs, which may mean not being able to fulfill their needs? Do you worry that your child will end up feeling abandoned and unloved, not a priority in your life?

If so, you’re not alone. So many women talk the talk of setting boundaries with their kids, but struggle to walk the walk, to say no, and dare to disappoint their kids. As moms, we twist ourselves into pretzels, make ourselves uncomfortable and sometimes sick; we deny ourselves our basic needs, in an effort to give our kids what they want, and be good moms whose kids don’t think she doesn’t love them.

Of course sacrificing and trying to give our kids what they want is a necessary part of good parenting. And yet, what often ends up happening is that in an effort to please and never disappoint, to never not be that mom they want, we end of overwhelmed, exhausted, frazzled, and sometimes even resentful–not our best or their best mom. We get angry at our kids, for making us do something that’s past our limits, like take them to buy cleats for the soccer game we were just told is tomorrow, when we have a meeting we can’t miss at work right now. We end up irritated at them that we had to do what we couldn’t do, and angry at ourselves for not setting a boundary about what was too much for us. We end up frustrated that we didn’t acknowledge our limits, admit that we can’t be in two places at once, only have so much energy, and that reality sometimes doesn’t line up with what we want.

The intention behind our struggle is loving: we want our kids to be happy; we don’t want to let them down. It’s painful to not be able to give our kids what they want, to see them disappointed and struggling. This is the beautiful truth and intention that drives our dysfunctional response. Instead of being honest, we rant at our kids or at the situation, which then makes our kids feel guilty and responsible for our anxiety, and upset. And furthermore, ashamed and sorry for having asked us at all. Our kids then feel responsible and take the blame for our inability to say no and are sometimes reluctant to ask for what they want in the future. The end result is this: In trying to make everyone happy, we make no one happy, and no one gets what they want or need.

Instead of owning and acknowledging the pain and challenges that reality includes, inside ourselves and with our kids, we get caught in this murky, twisted mess of inadequacy and unexpressed love. Sometimes, it’s best to simply be straightforward, as in, “I so want to be able to do this for you, and I know it’s going to be hard to ask your coach to play in sneakers not cleats tomorrow, but it’s not possible for me to be in two places at once. We’re going to have to find a different solution.” This is boots-on-the-grouond practice of being loving parents to our kids… and ourselves.

It’s important to show our kids that their parents are humans not action heroes who can magically make reality whatever they want it to be. When we’re acknowledge that we’re not cartoon-cutout “parents,” but just humans who love their kids and also have limits and limitations, ultimately, we lay the ground for an authentic and satisfying relationship throughout our lifetimes. Simultaneously we need to admit to our kids that we sometimes need things for ourselves, things that are not about them, like to work, earn income, be alone, spend time with our partner, or visit with grown up friends. We need to teach our kids that no matter how much we love them, we also have a responsibility to take care of ourselves, as selves that exist separate from them. This then will set them up for healthy relationships with their own kids, other people, and themselves.

In admitting that we have wants and needs beyond parenting, we prepare our kids to live in reality, not a fantasy world in which they believe they’re the center of everyone else’s universe. It helps our kids build relationships with other people, and encourages an attitude toward the world as a village in which there are many folks with whom they will learn and love.

Of course we want to make our kids’ lives as perfect as possible, and to protect them from the harshness of life, and this is a lovely desire. And yet, above and beyond creating a perfect life for them, is the harder part of our job which is to show our kids how to be okay when life is imperfect and shows up in shapes and sizes that we don’t want.

Our kids need to learn that not getting what they want is also a normal part of life, not an aberration, that they are not different from other people, it’s not unfair when things are difficult, and they are not missing out or being punished when life presents challenges. To know that obstacles are part of life, everyone’s life, then teaches our kids to be resilient and prepared—for life. Kids who aren’t taught this, whose every moment has been curated and protected, leave home and are often overwhelmed and shattered by what they discover, that in fact life in the real world is not perfect and not curated. As a result, they are utterly unprepared for life, which is not their fault; we have denied them the right to practice the skills of flexibility, adjustment and living with discomfort. Kids raised in this way are also, often, unprepared to put in the hard work associated with making their life what they want it to be, because so much was done for them, which doesn’t serve their sense of agency and resiience as adults.

So too, we are also modeling what may be the most critical skill we teach our kids, that as humans we can survive challenging circumstances, tolerate frustration and discomfort, adjust, pivot, and miraculously, still be ok. And furthermore, that it’s ok to be sad, disappointed, frustrated, angry, or whatever else they feel, to welcome the emotions that arise when what we want is not possible. We need to teach our kids that the feelings are natural and part of the experience, not shameful, not something they need to hide or avoid, and that the feelings won’t kill them. We can feel the feelings, survive, move on, and be ok—and maybe even be stronger for it. So too, that we can’t know what will come from not getting what we want, and sometimes something unexpected and even good grows out of challenge. Sometimes we build character and grit from it, even if we can’t see that now.

This is a skill many adults need to learn, to be ok with not ok, and not rely entirely on the contents of our lives to determine the enjoyment and appreciation of our lives. To see discomfort as an opportunity to develop resilience and, paradoxically, gratitude—encouraging us to be more thankful for what we do get and have, rather than focus only on what we don’t get. We model all of these wonderfully useful and delicious life skills when we show our kids that we (and they) can be ok when things don’t go our way.

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