Why Parenting Mistakes Are Actually Gifts
Everything is an opportunity for a conversation about values.
*Before I launch into today’s topic: I have just launched a new feature for paid subscribers. Scroll to the end to learn more!*
Over the holidays, we spent a week visiting my parents. My sister, her husband and their three kids joined us. It was a blast. Their youngest kid is six months older than my oldest, and the two are quite close — but their oldest is eight years older than my youngest, so there are some big age gaps too.
When we arrived, one of my sister’s kids desperately wanted to introduce to my kids to the TV show The Good Place — which, if you haven’t seen it, is charming and funny and about the afterlife and becoming a better person. But — and I had forgotten this, as I watched it years ago, and my memory is broken — the show also includes lots of references to unsavory behavior (selfishness, lying, cheating, etc) as well as sex and drug and alcohol use. In one of the shows, for instance, the character Mindy St. Claire makes repeated jokes about her love for masturbation, pornography and cocaine. I didn’t remember this until the kids were a few episodes in, and by then, they were hooked. The show had quickly become a bonding experience for the cousins, who would sit on the sofa and watch it together in the late afternoons.
I had a couple of choices. I could either deem the show inappropriate and tell my kids that they were not allowed to keep watching (which would make them very sad) or I could let them continue watching and deal with the fallout.
Then I realized something. This show was providing my husband and me with myriad opportunities to talk to our kids about life choices and values — as well as about sex, drugs and alcohol.
The show, I realized, was actually a gift.
Once I had this epiphany, I mentioned The Good Place to my kids when the four of us were driving to visit extended family the same week. I said something like, “Oh, hey, I noticed that The Good Place talks about some pretty grown-up things that you might not fully understand. Has anything come up that you have questions about?”
My 8-year-old did not disappoint. “Yes,” she said. “What’s the ‘Devil’s Dance’”?
This question sparked a 20-minute long conversation about sex. We’d already talked to her about it in the past, but as is often the case with kids and big topics, she hadn’t really absorbed it. She then launched into a tirade of questions, including:
What is sex?
How do you do it?
When can you start having sex?
How do you know if someone wants to have sex?
What does it feel like?
Have you and Dad had sex?
How many times? (OMG.)
How do you have sex without getting pregnant?
What are other ways to have sex? (This one was entirely my fault, stemming from my description of intercourse as “one kind of sex”.)
To many parents, this might sound like The Most Horrifying 20 Minutes Ever. And I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t easy. I takes a lot of brainpower to think through how to answer these questions on the spot in ways that an 8-year-old can understand. But the thing is: It doesn’t matter if you get things “right.” You can always revisit the topic later after you’ve had a chance to think about it more. Or you can say you need a few minutes to think about it before you answer. (If you want me to share what I remember of how I addressed these questions, let me know in the comments and I will answer them in a future newsletter. Well …. maybe not all of them.)
Why answer them at all? Because if kids are old enough to ask these questions, they’re old enough to get honest answers (even if you don’t tell them every little detail). Plus, if you refuse to address them, you’re not shielding your kids from the information — you’re just ensuring that they will get it elsewhere. And that elsewhere might not be particularly accurate or align with your values.
We also know that conversations about sex help kids make better choices. Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote for The New York Times a few years ago:
Parents might worry that framing sex in a positive way — or talking about sex at all — will make it more likely that their kids will start doing it, but the opposite is, in fact, true.
A 2015 study reported that when parents introduce their kids to the issue of sex with a stern, scare-mongering lecture, their kids are more likely to have sex during the teen years. When parents have more supportive and receptive conversations with their kids about sex, on the other hand, those kids are less likely to take sexual risks. And in a 2012 nationwide survey, 87 percent of teens said that it would be easier for them to postpone sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have open and honest conversations with their parents about sex.
The conversational opportunities afforded by The Good Place didn’t end with the sex talk, either. My kids later brought up the main characters’ copious lies, which prompted a chat about the importance of honesty. Later in the week, my 11-year-old brought up the show’s references to alcohol, asking us about hangovers and tequila, among other things. This became a great jumping-off point for a conversation about drinking and drugs — which, again, can be valuable, because we know from research that having open, two-sided conversations with kids about drugs and alcohol reduces the risk that they will use them.
I’m not going to say that everything is good fodder for conversations with kids, but I don’t think that’s totally far off, either. Generally speaking, shielding children from adult issues isn’t particularly helpful. It’s easier in the moment, but it has costs. I learned this over and over again while reporting my book.
Certainly, there are exceptions, and how you talk to your kids will depend on their age and temperament. We should always do what we can to ensure our kids feel safe and loved, and we don’t want to scare them. But I believe that most topics can be discussed with kids in ways that do not cause harm, and can actually do a lot of good. The hardest part is often figuring out how to organically broach the topic if they don’t ask you directly — which is why our “mistake” of letting them watch The Good Place was, in truth, a boon.
Many other parenting gaffes can be gifts, too. Like when you accidentally yell at your kid — that can be helpful on a number of levels: You can illustrate that everyone makes mistakes; you can model a true apology; and you can talk about emotional regulation strategies (“next time I feel this upset, what do you think I could do to help myself calm down?”). When you forget to do something you promised your child, that’s an opportunity to model how to make reparations. When you accidentally blame your kid for something they didn’t do, that’s an opportunity to talk about the value of not rushing to judgment (while also showing that again, everyone makes mistakes). And so on, and so on, and so on.
Every complicated, ugly parenting moment can be turned on its head into something beautiful that teaches kids how the world works and how to make good choices.
FUN NEWS! Today, I’m soft launching a new feature for paid subscribers. Each week, I’ll share my perspective on a nugget of parenting advice that’s been making the rounds on social media. If I disagree with it, I’ll share my rationale; if I agree with it, or sort of agree, I’ll explain why and perhaps add more context. As I’ve written before, parenting advice on social media often lacks nuance, yet it’s highly influential. I want to add thought and context to what’s being widely shared, especially because so much of today’s advice makes parents feel like crap.
Today, I’m discussing this Instagram reel that has nearly 600,000 likes, and which was shared with me by one of my followers. In it, Nate Feathers (@dads_dont_babysit) talks about a study involving mothers that, in his words, “found cells from their children in their brains from pregnancy.” He argues that because moms have their kids’ cells in their brains, moms are “cellularly connected” to their children in ways that make them especially sensitive to how their kids are treated. Thus, he concludes, “if you want to love your wife or your partner really well, treat your children with kindness, be slow to frustration, and love them well, because she's going to feel it in herself.”
Let me tell you how I feel about this advice.
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