In our desire to give our children a good life, parents shoulder a slew of impossible expectations and inevitably make mistakes that lead to guilt, hurt, and shame further down the road. In this article, Lori Ann Wood draws from her own experience as an empty nester to answer the question: How do I forgive myself for my parenting mistakes? By pointing us back to God’s grace, she reminds us that forgiveness often begins with our own parents and caregivers, and that nothing is beyond the realms of His redeeming mercy and love.
I remember the surprise of actually catching the lobbed half-court pass. I remember going for a layup, in an uncharacteristically confident move toward the basket. And I remember even more clearly, how the ball actually went through the net. But mostly I remember, instead of listening to the coach during the timeout that followed, scanning the crowded bleachers for my parents’ faces.
And I wondered, for the umpteenth time, why Mom and Dad didn’t show up at my junior high basketball games like my friends’ parents always seemed to do.
As I reflect back on that grainy memory, I’m on approximately Life Lesson #3,842: Never Judge Someone’s Parenting Journey.
Including your own.
NO PERFECT PARENTS
In our desire to make our children happy and keep them safe, parents shoulder a slew of impossible expectations. Even the best parents stumble under this load. Everyone makes mistakes. Even, especially, overburdened parents.
Our tendency to misstep starts early and sets in for the long haul.
Every mother ends up giving more of herself than she thought possible when she first dreamed about raising a child. And, in doing so, she makes more mistakes than she’d ever imagined when that flawless bundle was first placed in her arms. It is the human story.
We’ve all made decisions we weren’t ready to make. I can attest to it in my own parenting career. I long for a mulligan on things I did, even those done with good intentions, while life was happening at warp speed—while we were changing careers, buried in remodeling debt, and burying siblings from suicide and parents from preventable illness. Life came at us fast and we still had to make parenting decisions on the daily while we had no idea what we were doing.
Now, with an empty nest, I have a longer lens. I see things I couldn’t back in my hands-on parenting years, and especially in my basketball days. I’m realizing we need forgiveness for ourselves, and also for another set of God’s children: the people who raised us.
If you do the math, you’ll know that when we find ourselves with adult children, we usually also have aging parents. And we realize our own fallible parents deserve some of Jesus’ extravagant grace, too. Forgiveness for either of us can be stimulated by understanding the motives we were marching to.
EXAMINING MOTIVES FOR MISTAKES
In junior high, I assumed my parents’ gametime absence was because I was the third of four children. I never did anything first or last. So I thought my games were not novel enough, not new enough, not noteworthy enough. I assumed they had dropped the ball.
Turns out, gametime was 3:30 p.m., and my parents ran their own business in town in addition to the family farm 15 miles away. They were doing everything they could to provide for my siblings and I, and to demonstrate the value of hard work and sacrifice, which have proven to be much more valuable to me in the long run. (After all, I had a short career on the court—I gave up basketball just two years later.)
Parenting is backbreaking work, and being parented is a heartbreaking lesson in reality. We all get broken parents. And we all are broken parents ourselves.
One advantage of being in the empty-nest years is that we finally have the perspective to take in the breadth of the generational parenting journey. Although not every game was attended, my parents always showed up when it mattered: when I moved into the college dorm, when my babies were born, when we bought our first home, when I needed a phone call to help mend a bruised heart or calm a terrified mind.
Forgiveness vs. Judgment
I can see this now, but while we are in the trenches, we often suffer from wrongly-assigned motives. Just like I did on that junior high basketball court, we think we understand what’s going on in another person’s heart.
As Stephen Covey warned in his book, “The Speed of Trust,” we often judge (other parents or our own parents) based on their behavior, but we judge ourselves by our intentions.
I am finding it easier now to forgive the moments my parents may have missed the mark (maybe because those were so few), and I am finding it more difficult to forgive my own mistakes. Maybe because I saw those missteps from inside my heart and sometimes that heart was selfish or ashamed or scared.
But even well-intentioned parenting mistakes can create shame and guilt.
I often over-compensated for my parents’ gametime absence. Ignoring my children’s continuing pleas to give them some space and independence, I showed up early to watch every competition or performance (and most practices, scrimmages, meetings, and rehearsals, too). I thought I could correct the generational curse by swinging hard in the opposite direction. Turns out, all I did was make a brand-new misstep of my own.
My overzealous parenting, even if somewhat well-intentioned, may help explain why my children all settled states away in their desire for the independence I refused to give them in their early years.
HOW DO I FORGIVE MYSELF: LESSONS FROM SCRIPTURE
Just as the case would be if we searched our own city’s census, we would be hard pressed to find perfect human parents in Scripture. Even stellar ones are scarce. Yet, somehow, God’s story prevailed and advanced through history.
With no silver spoon to pass down, David started as a shepherd. He became a warrior and eventually confronted persecution and hardship. Yet he was an absentee, passive, discipline-averse father, on the run and in the battlefield for many parenting years. Perhaps, like us, this man after God’s own heart was trying to model a better life, wanting more for his children than he had.
King David wasn’t a perfect parent, but neither was Joseph’s father Jacob who showed such favoritism, or Eve whose sons’ uncontrolled quarreling ended in murder. Abraham had a whole slew of parenting fails, including abandoning his first-born son. And there are others on the roster: Lot failing to protect his daughters; King Ahaz committing an unthinkable sacrifice with his infant boy; Isaac and his wife Rebekah playing favorites with their twins; permissive Eli ignoring the sins of his sons.
Murders, adultery, greed, lack of faith—each of these parents parented wayward children. But they, like us, were all wayward children themselves. Even when they seemed far from the principles and practices of God, the Father still used them all.
His Power is Greater
If He can take such glaring mistakes and redeem them with a promise, He can redirect our parenting blunders, too.
Clearly, the Bible gives us plenty of examples of human, flawed parents. But the Spirit of God never leaves us to figure out life on our own. Proverbs provides us with some guidelines: discipline your children (19:18), train your children (22:6), and be an example for your children (20:7).
But the best parenting example shows up in the New Testament, where God is portrayed through the Parable of the Two Sons. The overall theme there is forgiveness and grace, and learning to accept both. This teaching of Jesus seems to sum up our journey as both children and parents, and it emphasizes the heart of the gospel itself.
Scripture gives three solid principles on parenting and how to forgive yourself:
1. Model Forgiveness and Grace Given
“The work of every parent is to give the best they know how now—and the work of every child is to forgive their parents the best they can now.”Ann Voskamp
I’ve often found that the best way to forgive myself is to first identify with and then forgive others. We can all start by forgiving our parents.
In some of Jesus’ most important and impactful teaching, He urged us to adopt an attitude of pardon, and hinted that our own forgiveness from others, if not also from ourselves, hinges on it: “…forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).
If you’re having a difficult time forgiving your own parents, seek a good Christian counselor or mental health professional. Childhood wounds and generational consequences are an intertwined web that we often can’t untangle on our own.
No one understands this better than Jesus who was born through a withered family line, then shed blood to extend forgiveness to generations of sinful people. Within His community of faithful guidance, we nurture our salvation as well as our capacity to forgive.
Speaking of the grace of Jesus, we must also own our choices and not blame our parents for everything that did not turn out as we’d like. We must remember who we’ve become is a sum of temperament, experiences, and the every-challenging element of free will. Parents only control so much of the outcome.
The flip side is this: Free will also applies to the people we raised. So, as we are forgiving our parents, we become better at giving our parenting-selves some grace, too.
2. Model Repentance and Grace Received
God understands that every human story is riddled with regret. (Spoiler: This perfect Father sent His own Son to remedy that.)
If your children are adults, a spoken confession and an acknowledgement of mistakes can go a long way toward easing your own unsettled soul. In doing so, we are modeling acceptance of the ultimate gift of grace that every adult child of God desperately needs.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery in a unique way. Instead of making the breaks less visible, instead of trying to mend the piece as if it had never been broken, this art form exalts the breaks. The pottery is restored with lacquer and the cracks are dusted with gold.
In much the same way, our mistakes create space for grace.
Author Donald Miller put it this way, “Grace only sticks to our imperfections.”
Express shortcomings and ask for forgiveness, but ultimately whether your children forgive you or not, the load will be lifted from your end. With past cracks filled in by grace, you will see your mended life from a whole new perspective. As we read in Acts 3:19: “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (NIV).
3. Model Dependence and Guidance Accepted
As parents, we can be too hands-on, too intentional. (I’ve already proven that theorem.) When we do this, our children often see us as being too human-sufficient, and not God-dependent enough. Learning to forgive yourself can include admitting your own limitations.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:19).
When we acknowledge our insufficiencies, we can release our regret into His arms. Surrendered and humble, we are in the best position to point to our ultimate Parent. His power is seen most clearly through our weakness.
As parents, we are in a unique and privileged position to admit our need for His guidance and model dependence, even as we lead our own families. This purposeful humility demonstrates confidence and strength that nothing else can.
All our children will need this example one day when something is beyond their power and control. It may be a divorce or a disease or some other disaster. Or it may just turn out to be an afternoon junior-high basketball game.
TAKE THE FIRST STEP
If we want to start the process of forgiving ourselves for parenting mistakes, the first step is forgiving our own parents or those who raised us. We don’t have to condone every action or motive, but simply express appreciation for the part they played in helping us grow.
If you want to make this a priority in your own journey of forgiveness, I have a free printable, “Thank You Card to Parents,” available on my website. Just print it out on black and white cardstock and fold. Color before sending or gift it with a set of colored pencils for the recipient to color and keep.
How might God be prompting you to take a step toward forgiving yourself (or others) for parenting mistakes in your own motherhood journey?
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