Talking to Myself: The Words We Use to Parent

Lisa writes: I have survived two decades of parenting by talking to myself.  My incantations are my alter ego reminding me to put things in perspective, step back and take a breath and that things will probably be okay.  So while the mom voice in my head is shrieking, at myself or my kids, there is a calmer quieter voice, talking to myself, reminding me to count to ten before I speak.  I suspect that the calm, ever-so-sensible voice I hear in my head is my husband’s.

Well, at least no one was hurt.  My kids have smashed walls (who knew drywall was so easy go through), cars (ah yes, well)  and every toy of value they were ever given.   Boys seem to have a seek and destroy mechanism that is programmed from birth so this was one of the first parenting phrases I learned to say to myself.  I still say it to myself when they call and begin the conversation with, “Mom, there is something I need to tell you….”

He doesn’t mean that, he really doesn’t.  The first time one of my kids railed at me with the words, “you don’t understand anything, anything!” I had to repeat these words.  My crime? I had scheduled a play date for a fifth grader without asking first. This refrain works in response to a wide variety of invectives from,  “You are ruining my life”,  to everyone’s favorite, “I hate you” to my polite child’s  “I don’t really like you right now.”

I am the parent, he is a child.  This one usually requires much repetition because it is rolled out at the moments when we feel most unsure about our parenting. Some parenting decisions can find us sitting on the fence.  Curfew stretched to 1 am for a special occasion? Sleepover at a house you are not 100% about?   When we remember the first rule of parenting is to trust our instincts and say “no,” this is the reminder that if our kids’ judgements were sound, they would no longer need to live with us.

talking to myself-parenting boys-brothers-boys at the beach-children playng at the beach

Lots of people have baby vomit in their hair. I told myself this more than once while standing in front of the bathroom mirror in the bank at which I worked.  It was not true, but my other option was to burst into a flood of tears over the way I must have smelled. And telling myself this made me feel better.

This isn’t my childhood.  While it would seem that such information is obvious, it is hard not to refer to our own childhoods and decide that what worked for us should work for our kids.  It doesn’t.  The world has changed far too much to make many of our reference points relevant. Yet, it is really hard to parent without reference points.  It doesn’t matter that our kids should be able to roam far more freely or study for the SAT far less.  This is not 1980 and the sooner I let go of notions from the disco era, the better.  Sometimes I find myself starting a sentence with, “We didn’t do this when we were kids and we turned out fine” and then I stop, and remind myself that this is not my childhood.

Punishment should be a learning experience, not an opportunity for payback. Punishing kids is hard, and, in the heat of the moment, the temptation is to take away food, water and oxygen.  While resisting this urge, I remind myself that some of life’s important lessons are learned when we err, if only I as a parent can remember to teach those lessons rather than simply shrieking into the ether.

There is plenty of time for everything.  Dating in Middle School? No. Sixteen year old birthday party at a “teen” night club. No. Breaking curfew for this once in a lifetime event that only goes on until 3am?  No.  Destination 12th birthday party?  Are you kidding?  No, no just no.  Everything in life is better at the right time.  Sixteen year olds go on dates, not twelve-year olds.  Destination events are weddings, not kid’s parties.  And while my child might not know this…I do.

+ Lisa Endlich Heffernan



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Comments

  1. So true about the lack of reference points for modern parents–I feel as though we’re often just making it up as we go. But I think as long as we do so thoughtfully, and with love and consistency, we’ll all be fine.
    Karen

    • We feel safe when we harken back to our own childhood, it just doesn’t seem to work any more. I used to try to ground my kids and with the technology at their fingertips they barely cared, that was my first clue that things had really changed a great deal.

  2. Lisa, not sure which is my favorite. “I am the parent, he is the child.” I always mess up when I don’t trust my instincts. “This isn’t my childhood.” That one I often remembered, usually at those moments when I saw my child was just like me or thankfully, when I saw she or he wasn’t. Actually, the best has to be “There is plenty of time for everything.” I also said no to the early dating and late curfews for the same reasons you did. If only parents weren’t in such a rush to let their kids grow up. It happens fast enough with out us helping it along.

  3. I liked all of these – they all ring true. The reference points – sometimes I got that wrong, sometimes right. I’m still asking myself: is the world all that different? Or have we just convinced ourselves that it is, so therefore we justify some of the pressures we put on our kids to “study” for the ACT (not that that’s a bad idea…just found it hard to put in practice). I also found that our kids often had the same reactions to “things” (what? teachers, authority, whatever…not sure what I mean!) that we did. Common, adolescent reactions. I’m never sure I make sense on these posts! :)

    • Let me add: yes, the world has changed, and so, yes, our response to our children will be different from what we experienced with our parents. But that happens with every generation – change is the one constant. But I don’t think kids have changed; or, child development. So…sometimes I think it’s okay to let them experience some of the struggles we weren’t saved from…because I do think it is in those moments that kids experience the “growing up” part we all want them to do. But still – I can relate to all your points.

      • Thanks Pam. I just find that we parents often harken back to a world that no longer exists and feel things are tougher and unfair for our kids. The world changed and as you point out, that is not really unfair, it just is. Thanks for both of your comments.

  4. I had to laugh at the last one. I agree with you, but we may be a dying breed. Recently, I saw (on FB) someone who’d rented a limo to take his nine year old to a father-daughter dance.

    • But then what do you do for Prom at 17??? Hate to sound old and cranky, but there is a time and place…

  5. Carpool Goddess says:

    I had a little chuckle over the polite child saying “I don’t really like you right now.” What I would have given to hear that and not the other in my house! Great list Lisa. I’m so glad to know I wasn’t the only one saying “No” all the time.

    • And he said it so calmly…it shook me much more than the rantings I have heard at other times.

  6. Soo good. Sooo true. I’m with you on the no, no,nos too!

  7. It was almost painful to realize that my biggest reference point was how my parents parented ME. Which was well intended and full of love but really not aligned with really any modern parenting tropes. It stung a bit but letting go of “I know how to do it because I’ll just do what was one to me” really helped open up so many new avenues.

    • It is hard to let go of, and put us on even less secure ground, but as you say, it was the right thing to do. Thanks so much for commenting.

  8. Risa says:

    Yeah, there is a lot of self-talk involved in raising kids. Saying no to things was often difficult, calling the parents of the kid having the party to make sure they’d be home every time was a nuisance, and telling a friend’s mom that our son would no longer be a passenger in her son’s car after some “overly enthusiastic” driving we observed was tough–but our instincts guided us well overall. Now that two of my kids are parents, I wonder how they’ll respond to the “I hate you” and “you don’t understand” comments they are probably going to hear someday. It seems inevitable. My 30-something daughter remembers very well my response to her “I hate you Mom” moment: “You’re not so great yourself right now!” Not my finest hour, but it made her stop and think.
    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    • The driving thing, whether it is the car of another adult of a teen is one of the hardest we face. So many situations where our desire to be polite had to be cast aside by our concerns for safety. I love your retort!

  9. I don’t know why I haven’t been following you? I must have been under a rock. This is a wonderful and insightful post. I especially like the ‘I am the parent’ They are the child’ I remember each one of my children yelling at me that we would never be friends. I said that was just fine because they would have many of those but only one of me- and that was just how the cookie crumbled. Needless to say, they are all grown and we are great friends- but they still remember who’s boss.

    • So glad that you found us Cheryl! You are so right in your response, only wish I had spoken you earlier. It is heartbreaking at the time as we let our hopes that our kids will never look at us with daggers in their eyes….ah well.

  10. Emily says:

    These were all so good and I especially liked the “This Isn’t My Childhood.” That one is so hard to remember, whether it’s dealing with the technological age or trying to make your kid into a jock like you may have been. I’ve got to talk to myself with these points more often…

    • This isn’t my childhood or….my chance to do childhood over again. I should have written these on the back of my hand so I could have seen them every day!

  11. This is perfect! Even though the ages of the kids change and a lot of the issues, I think that much of the “self-talk” involved in being a parent doesn’t change too much. I can relate to so many of these, even though my son is only two. For instance, I’m even appalled by how much insanity surrounds toddler birthdays! Whatever happened to cake, some paper hats, and ice cream? And my son is always doing crazy things — climbing up bookcases, jumping off tables — and I’m constantly saying to myself, “It’s okay. No one got hurt.”

    • Very kind, thank you. So glad they are perennial. The no one is hurt mantra begins very very very early. Probably starts the first time they fling themselves over the bars of the crib and we get to use it the rest of their lives.

  12. Chloe Jeffreys says:

    These are all good. I’ve used each and every one more than once. The one I now use the most is, “It’s their life.”

    • The “It’s their life” one is forever..but when do we kick in with self talking with our grandchildren. “He/she is not my kid, this is not my responsibility???”

  13. Love these! The one I have had trouble with since my kids are now adults (and I’m *still* the parent!) is “I am the parent, he is a child,” especially with my oldest. I was such a young mom and there’s now fewer years between my daughter and me than there are between some of my friends and me. So I must consciously remember at times that she is my daughter, not friend, especially when it comes to complaining about my husband (her dad)!

    Other than that, I learned from my mother exactly what to NOT do, so it gave me a reference point for where to begin to try doing the right thing.

    Great post!

    • Ooops…yes the whole friend like is easy to slip over. What are the phrases you need to remember when you are the grandmother? I am sure you have already begun a whole new litany of self talk with those adorable grandsons.

  14. Such thoughtful, wise and sensible advice that can only come from reflecting back on lessons hard won.

  15. I also liked the list and feel relieved to know I’m not the only one saying “no”. There’s one other “self-talk” mantra on my personal list: “It’s okay if other parents don’t do it this way.” I’ve often felt I was alone and battered in my parenting. This was especially true when, for example, another parent called to berate me for asking a teacher to separate our misbehaving boys in class. This was heaped on top of my child being angry, too. Standing firm, but alone, can be necessary and hard.

    • Vivien, You are so right and I should have included that and its corollary, “I don’t care what other parents do, I am only raising you and your siblings!” Thanks for the suggestion.

  16. I think the one that goes through my head that proves the most helpful to me is, “Someday I will miss this.” Maybe not the lice treatments or the vomit or the noise and frustration, but that general sense of having small children to care for. I have nostalgia when I see babies now, even though I remember how much work babies are. And I know I will have nostalgia for my kids as they are today, even when they are difficult in this moment.

    • You are so right. I don’t mind doing so many things because I can see the years winding down. Really great suggestion.

  17. I couldn’t agree with you more. Nowdays I wonder if some parents aren’t living vicariously through their children – what happened to the birthday cake, plate of lollies and chips and playing pin the tail on the donkey or I wrote a letter to my love ? Why do children not understand that everyone cannot win something all the time ? When organising birthday games, one child wins each game – that is how it is. Everyone doesn’t get a present just for being there or participating.
    Sometimes I wonder how much of it is trying to keep up with the Jones’ rather than what is appropriate for your child ?
    Having said that I have just opened a birthday list from my daughter for her 21st – clearly she has some huge expectations and I am not sure that we can comply. Is this our fault ? Have we taught her this feeling of entitlement ? We don’t live like that so where has she picked up this expectation ?
    It truly is a difficult time to bring up children.
    Have a great day !
    Me

  18. ….And they all grow up to be ok anyway.

    If only someone could have told us that way back when!

  19. Perfect post Lisa. I was thinking a lot of the same things this week for some reason. I loved the last paragraph best. For years, I carried in my wallet an Erma Bombeck column, i think the title was “I loved you enough to say no”. It made me weep every time I read it. you can google Erma Bombeck I loved you enough to say no and read it. While we’ve had to find our own new frames of reference, often feeling so uncertain, there are things about loving them enough to say no that are timeless.

    • Love that, have never heard it, “I love you enough to say no”. WIll look it up right now, sounds like what I need at this minute!

  20. Jodie says:

    So well done Lisa. Thanks for these – especially the last. Such good guidance as parenting decisions get tougher as our kids grow. I’d have to add “it’s not always glamorous”… What I say about motherhood when I am feeling so very un-Gwyneth Paltrow cleaning up “natural” disasters or toting toddlers to the grocery store bathroom (I never even knew grocery stores had bathrooms until I spent so much time in them with my kids).

    • It seems glamorous when you are picking out a crib and buying some baby clothes but reality is not too far behind….thanks for the addition. My favorite memory is taking a toddler to the bathroom at a mall and throwing away everything he was wearing (natural disaster beyond bringing home) and emerging with a baby only wearing a diaper. Good thing we were in Southern Cal!

  21. So well done Lisa. Thanks for these – especially the last. Such good guidance as parenting decisions get tougher as our kids grow. My version of the throw-up in the hair is “it’s not always glamorous”… What I say about motherhood when I am feeling so very un-Gwyneth Paltrow cleaning up “natural” disasters or toting toddlers to the grocery store bathroom (I never even knew grocery stores had bathrooms until I spent so much time in them with my kids).

  22. This is very sound advice for anyone who ever has to cope with children (their own or someone else’s) :)