When my mom died, I was 21. At her memorial service, many of the people I spoke to told me that I reminded them of my mom in many good ways. I was deeply touched to be considered so similar to this amazing woman. As the decades have passed since this time, however, I’ve seen how my perception of my mom was incomplete. I didn’t merely see her as a woman who was kind, loving, caring, and helpful at her essence. I saw her as perfect. Her imperfect moments I perceived as the fault of someone else — often me — and much of what she had considered “wrong” about herself or her actions was not revealed to me until after she died.
Holding a distorted view of my mom made it hard for me to accept anything less than “perfection” from myself and often left me uncomfortable in my own skin when I didn’t live up to my own expectations. This false picture of my mom also created emotional distance between us because I didn’t really know the real person she was nor did I feel confident revealing my authentic self to her. This experience – and the lessons learned from it – forms the basis of my commitment to being authentic with my daughter — even when that authenticity is ugly, hurtful, small-minded, self-absorbed, or petty. It’s not an easy task and sometimes I wish my truth in a given moment was completely different, but that’s pretending, and I intend to be real.
“We are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. We love authenticity and we know that life is messy and imperfect.”~Brené Brown
Children See Through Fake
While children love Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and imaginary friends, these creations are different than the disguises we try to wear as parents. False emotion — pretending to be happy when we’re feeling sad, trying to mask angry feelings with falsely sweet talk — is both inauthentic and ineffective. Whether it’s because some other part of our communication gives us away (that clenched jaw or narrowed eyes of an angry moment), or simply because we’re not very good actors, children sense what’s really going on for us even when we don’t directly acknowledge it. I believe they have an inner “BS meter” that alerts them to anything else that seems “off” between what they sense as reality and what we actually tell them. If the children are like I was, they may turn these inklings of inauthenticity into self-doubt or self-criticism — “I never hear of ‘bad stuff’ mom did as a kid so maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just a ‘bad kid.'” Later on — perhaps in the teen years — or when actual “evidence” comes to light about what mom or dad really did do on prom night, the truth can lead to feelings of separation, resentment, and general unease about having been fooled for so long.
Why We Sometimes Hide Our True Selves
Just in case it’s not apparent, let’s list the reason we don’t automatically share our authentic selves with our children (and many other people, for that matter). FEAR. The only rationale that we have is that we’re afraid to be real, because we:
- experienced past shame for exposing our true self. Perhaps we got labeled as selfish for telling grandma that we were mad that brother got more Christmas presents then we did, or…
- felt a loss of love or acceptance when we told our truth. Our parents may have assured us that we weren’t hungry because we’d just eaten even though we said we felt hungry. Or maybe friends deserted us or family disowned us when we told them we were gay, or…
- had some other form of pain that followed an experience of being real. If our parents hit us in their times of anger, we might have made decisions out of the fear and hurt we felt (“Anger is bad. I won’t ever show anger to others. I must protect myself from anyone else’s anger.)
“All love is unconditional. Anything else is just approval.”~Rachel Naomi Remen
Children Deserve Our Authentic Selves
While it can be uncomfortable for us, I believe that our children want and even need to see us as we really are. While this doesn’t mean telling your preschooler about your experimentation during college, it does mean giving them a true picture of who you are, how you are, and your experience of life.
- Safely express your true emotions in front of your child, simply stating how you feel. “I’m feeling so frustrated right now.” “I’m going into another room for a minute because I feel really angry.” With anger, make your expression safe – being authentic isn’t an excuse for being violent or abusive. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with grief or some other emotion, don’t cry for long periods or totally break down in front of your child or expect them to make you feel better.
- Freely admit that you’ve made a mistake, and apologize when appropriate. “I’m sorry that I yelled at you.” “I forgot that I said we’d go to the park this afternoon. I apologize that we can’t go now.” “I didn’t leave enough time for us to go to the library today. I’m sorry. Can we go tomorrow instead?”
- Reveal your “lesser” self to your child. My daughter will sometimes ask if I’ve had the same experience as she is having, especially with things about which she feels uncomfortable or uncertain. For instance, “Mama, do you ever worry about dying,” and “Do you ever forget to wash your hands, Mama?” are two recent examples. Rather than trying to be “above” fears or infallible with personal hygiene, I answer her truthfully: “Yes, I do feel fear about dying, because I enjoy life so much.” And, “I do forget to was my hands sometimes too.”
- Offer up stories to show how human you are. Instead of only telling tales of your past glories, share stories about times in the past when you “failed,” got something “wrong,” goofed and made amends (or didn’t). Don’t do this to teach a moral lesson but to help your child know the universality of her experience and that being human means both “good” and “bad” moments.. For instance, trying to get your child to change her behavior by telling about a time in your past would be moralizing: “Mommy once broke her brother’s toy which he’d asked her not to play with. She felt so bad afterwards.” Sharing your history as a way to show compassion has a different ring to it: “I remember when I once broke a favorite toy of Uncle Joe. I felt really sad because I had wanted to play with it so badly but then ended up breaking it. Is this a little like how you’re feeling right now?”
- Empathize with accept your child’s authentic self. When you hear your child share her truth and you fully accept your child and her experience, you create a safe space for being real — for your child and yourself. If your son says “I don’t want to go down the slide,” don’t automatically try to convince him to give it a try or remind him of how much he loved the slide yesterday. Instead seek out what might be getting in his way of going down the slide, and then acknowledge his truth (“So you’re feeling scared watching those other bigger kids going down the slide so fast? Shall we do something else now and come back to the slide later on?”)
While the idea of trying to appear as the perfect parent may appeal to our ego, it doesn’t speak to our spirit, which is devoted to the truth. Plus, of course, perfection as a human isn’t even possible; especially since all ideas of perfection are subjective, rather than factual. Though our fears might surface at the mere suggestion of being authentic with our children, our children deserve to know us as we truly are . . . and we deserve the opportunity to be real in every area of our lives.
“If you want to enter into a state of pure connection with your child, you can achieve this by setting aside any sense of superiority. By not hiding behind an egoic image, you will be able to engage your child as a real person like yourself.”~Shefali Tsabary