Failing As Parents Can Be Our Greatest Triumph and Other Advice From A Family Psychologist

Over the years I have offered countless lectures, workshops and seminars for parents on the wonders and woes of childrearing. Invariably, during the Q&A, I will be asked,“If you could leave us with just one piece of advice, the most important takeaway from your presentation, what would it be?”

I used to bristle a bit upon hearing this question. How was I supposed to be able to condense everything that I had so earnestly conveyed into a simple tip or maxim?

Yet over time I began to see the value in coming up with a thoughtful response. Few undertakings are as daunting, and as overwhelming, as parenthood. So who could blame  parents for requesting  one insight or family-changing idea that they could bring home?

Once I reconciled myself, I made a little promise that I would never repeat myself. It would be a personal challenge to come up with something new each time I was asked.

Advice from a psychologist to parents

While I have never really believed that parents need advice or suggestions, I do believe that they frequently benefit from support, perspective and a certain normalizing companionship. I hope that one or more of these aphorisms offer these, and deepen, soften and illuminate your relationship with your child—and perhaps even with yourself.

Ninety-six aphorisms on parenting that might help with your parent/child relationship

  1. Your child is not here to respect you, but to replace you.
  2. Children ask their parents to save them from what they fear, but parents make the same request of their children.
  3. Children are more likely to change for the better if they know that they will be loved and accepted for staying the same.
  4. Childhood should be a preparation for adulthood, not a production for adults. The child’s primary objective is to transform,not to perform.
  5. We need to have more faith in our children than they have in themselves.
  6. Getting to the place of not being able to stand your child is an achievement.
  7. Our main job as parents is to attract our child’s curiosity regarding why he does what he does and why he doesn’t do what he should.
  8. We parent best not on the basis that there is a problem to be solved but that there is a capacity for thinking and feeling to be developed.
  9. There is always a truth that hides within our own disturbing, unnerving feelings about our child, and it is a truth that deserves to be uncovered—which is best done by continuing to feel disturbed and unnerved.
  10. Every child is calling out across the distance, hoping to be heard.  The distance is generally greater than either of you think.
  11. Take pleasure in what satisfies you about your child, but take interest in what doesn’t.
  12. The mystery that inheres in our children—what we don’t and can’t understand about them—is their most meaningful gift to us, and what ultimately sustains us. Pity the parent who believes that he understands his child.
  13. Don’t work to improve your child’s life—work to help her live it.  She’ll take care of the rest.
  14. The parent is responsible for laying out the possibility that, together, parent and child can co-author a story that changes both of them forever.
  15. Now and then, give yourself a chance to completely abandon the seductive lucidity of childrearing advice
  16. Don’t count on your child to relieve you of yourself.
  17. It can be a great relief to know that you and your child are just like everyone else—aim to be ordinary.
  18. We all fail at the idea of family—that we fail, and how we fail, can be our greatest triumph.
  19. Let your child gather his sadness around him, like a cloak.  Admire and revere the cloak, for it is warming him. But don’t touch the cloak.
  20. Children show us the face that they want us to see but pray that they can’t completely hide the face that they need us to see.
  21. Very little separates the pain of loss from the pleasure of possibility.
  22. Family life is a series of lessons in thwarting and in being thwarted.  When children are thwarted by their parents, they are less likely to thwart themselves.
  23. Parents who try to be too democratic exert their own, unique form of oppression.
  24. What kind of parent doesn’t wail once in a while? Or at least lock herself in the bathroom?  Perhaps hide himself under the kitchen table?
  25. Raise children to be true to their own intentions, and hope and trust that at least some of their intentions will seem misguided to you and lead them astray—by your definition.
  26. Don’t ever give up hope for your children, but don’t ever forget how liberating it would be if you released yourself from hope’s relentless burden.
  27. More important than any other logic is the logic of your child’s imagination.
  28. Not everything needs to be said. The unsayable can be precious, too.
  29. Children want us to be proud of them and also to worry about them—our task is to convince them that we prize the former over the latter, while still acknowledging that the former will leave us lonelier than the latter.
  30. Growth depends on experiencing love and love’s absence, and the capacity to fully fear both of them.
  31. Try to make thinkable what could previously not be thought, both for you and your child.
  32. No parent cures a child’s loneliness, but every parent deserves to try.
  33. Look for what is lovely about your child, but don’t be afraid to also look for what is ludicrous.
  34. The obedient child surrenders to the world. The wise child adapts to the world.
  35. When children say mean and hurtful things to their parents, they do so to test, honor and sustain their bond with their parents.
  36. Every child must learn to carry one pain, one loss, one tragedy, that can never be forgotten and never be repaired. If we can keep them company while they carry it, especially if we never know what it is, they will be forever grateful.
  37. Kites remain aloft not only as a result of the wind, but by the pull of the string that holds them against the wind.
  38. What we deny knowing about ourselves will generally be more harmful to us and to our children than what we are willing to know
  39. Wish for your child to engage in wishful thinking.
  40. Think carefully and fearlessly about how you eventually became who you didn’t want to become…endeavor to teach that lesson to your children.
  41. Come up with one unliftable, unshiftable fact about your child. Then, don’t lift it or shift it.
  42. Allow yourself to feel the full force of regret for the ways in which you disappointed your child—without regret, we regress.
  43. Allow yourself to feel the full force of betrayal for the ways in which your child disappointed you—without knowing betrayal, we never know trust.
  44. Avoid condemning your child to being imprisoned in a glorious future.
  45. The attainment of an exasperated truce between parent and child is often a Herculean feat, one for which both parties should be heartily congratulated.
  46. Every child experiences a desire to hurt and to be hurt.  Neither desire will hurt them.
  47. When you are about to say something of significance to your child, ask yourself:  “Will my words be of use to her in her struggle with herself, with others, and with the world?”If not, consider being quiet.
  48. You can love your child without knowing who she really is.  In fact, that is the truest, most sincere form of parental love.
  49. The two fiercest, most aggressive words in the English language:  “I am…”
  50. Children best manage their desire to destroy by attempting to destroy their parents.  The fortunate child repeatedly fails in this endeavor. The fortunate parent repeatedly feels destroyed, which means that the family has survived.
  51. There is a small but resonating space that exists between thought and feeling—look for it within yourself, and help your child to find it inside of her.
  52. The most significant growth a child experiences always takes place internally, and, like a seedling setting down roots, will be completely unobservable to the parent.  Visible change is like the body, invisible change is like the soul—one lasts longer than the other.
  53. The healthy child yearns to be loyal to his family in a disloyal way.
  54. Gradually sharing with our children our personal darkness helps them to see the light.  Gently revealing to our children their personal darkness helps them to follow that light towards the discovery of their true nature.
  55. Children fret about being trapped by love as much as they fret about love’s disappearance.
  56. When we don’t see our child clearly, we conclude either that the child is not there to be seen or that we are blind, completely forgetting how important it is for children to conceal themselves.
  57. Growth means eventually finding the adult love that softens our childhood pain.
  58. Loving families are held together by the silent tension of a barely restrained scream.
  59. Children prefer to be denounced than dismissed.
  60. Set out to gently illuminate, rather than harshly eliminate, your child’s flaws and weaknesses.
  61. Children will sometimes behave in bizarre and inexplicable ways. Woe to those who don’t.
  62. While our love was sufficient to give our child life, it will not be sufficient for her to live that life.
  63. It is important to restrain your child from what is not allowed, but to also hope that she never refuses to fully forego the forbidden.
  64. Children need us the most when they are the least easy to be with.
  65. We are valuable to our children when we help them to see what is right with them rather than what is wrong with them—which is what helps them to understand and address what is wrong with them.
  66. It is not a problem when children fail.  It is not a problem when parents fail. It is a problem when our collective imagination fails to behold the path towards compassion that is illuminated by our failures.
  67. Children defy adults in order to define themselves.
  68. Empathy for children is not conveyed by the words, “I know what you’re feeling”, but by the words, “I don’t know what you’re feeling—but I would like to know, if you ever decide that it is worth telling me.”
  69. What you define as your child’s problems has more to do with your own problems than you think. So think about that…
  70. Sometimes, we have no choice, due to the inadequacy of our love, to do anything other than make things worse for our child.  Inadequate love still counts as love.
  71. Children get angry with their parents when they try to fool them and can’t. Children despise their parents when they try to fool them and can.
  72. A good day for most children is determined not by what they have successfully accomplished, but on how successfully they have avoided humiliation.
  73. Telling children what to do has nothing to do with showing them who they are.
  74. Most children would rather stumble being themselves than triumph being someone else.
  75. This is how you can be sure you are close with your child—when from time to time you allow yourself to see her behavior as entirely resistant to comprehension.
  76. Good children hurt good parents. Good parents hurt good children. When hurt is done well, it can do some good.
  77. Children are troubled most deeply not by what they learn, but by what they fear they will fail to learn.
  78. What we ourselves desire should not come at our child’s expense.
  79. Children find freedom through acquiring self-discipline.  Children acquire self-discipline through experiencing freedom.
  80. Family love depends upon moments of hatred.  The thrill of hatred is both shameful and wonderful, and absolutely necessary for growth.
  81. There are no significant family alterations without significant family altercations.
  82. Children prefer to feel something rather than to feel nothing.
  83. Try to re-learn how children learn, try to re-discover how children discover. You knew this once. On your own and by dreaming.
  84. Each one of us has two childhoods—one that doesn’t last and one that never ends.
  85. There is absolutely nothing you can do about your child’s grades. Parents can earn good grades by realizing this.
  86. Every child senses the end of childhood—that awareness is the source of her heartache, but it is also what awakens and ennobles her, and leads her towards wholeness.
  87. We all have a way in which we are determined to love someone else—parenthood will insist and demand that we find a different way.
  88. None of us completely outgrow the fear that we can suddenly become unlovable and undesirable, even in our most trusted and loving relationships
  89. We are generally able to tolerate our children’s flaws when we believe that those flaws are somehow benign or meaningful, at least from our perspective—which is our flaw.
  90. It is your acknowledgment of your powerlessness over your child that lays the groundwork for her respect. Complete power elicits complete fear, not respect.
  91. When the parent colonizes the child’s self-image, it will be difficult to quell the inevitable rebellion.
  92. When you seek to find the truth of your child, you will find truths about yourself that you did not know and may not fully understand. Incomplete understanding is the best position from which to raise a child and to more fully accept yourself.
  93. Children experience little contradiction between their desperate need for their parents and their desperate need to be rid of their parents.
  94. When we let our children go, we are less likely to lose them and more likely to find them, just as they become more likely to find themselves.
  95. When it comes to determining whether or not you are a good parent, there should be evidence on both sides. If not, take a closer look.
  96. There is someone whom you lost long ago.  Your child is not that someone. Please search somewhere else.

More to Read:

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About Brad Sachs

Dr. Brad Sachs is a psychologist, consultant, lecturer and best-selling author specializing in clinical work with children, adolescents, couples, and families, in Columbia, Maryland, and the Founder and Director of The Father Center, a program designed to meet the needs of new, expectant, and experienced fathers. He writes Psychology Today’s “Emptying the Nest” blog, and has lectured and led seminars and workshops for general and clinical audiences nationally and internationally. For additional information, visit his website:

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