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It’s not your fault

“Welcome to parenthood. You’ll never again blow out birthday candles and make a wish for yourself.”

This wisdom from the TV series “Zoo” sums up the pain of parenting. There is always something wrong that we wish to make right. This is especially poignant when our children have reached the age when all we can do is wish – birthday wishes, wishes on a falling star and wishes voiced in prayer.

Keep wishing and praying, but take some time to consider what you did right. It is my New Year wish for you that you cut yourself some slack.

Our continuing angst about our adult children is fed by self blame and an overworked sense of our influence on them. “You had one job, and you blew it,” we tell ourselves. You probably did fall short of perfection. There may have been some specifics you forgot to teach them.

Case in point: In 2008, two young NASA interns, male and female, hyped up on their budding passion and feeling the need to impress each other, used their access to steal millions of dollars in Moon rocks from a NASA vault. “My son/daughter, the rocket scientist,” may have been uttered in pride more than once before the heist. Apparently Mom and Dad forgot to teach the lesson about stealing national treasures.

But let’s give those parents some credit. They raised rocket scientists, who just happened to be saddled with young adult brains. Frankly, parents, there’s not a lot you can do stop your children, especially the male of the species, from the stupidity that comes with the natural pace of brain development and hormonal maturation. That is not your fault.

Their world is saturated with drugs, alcohol and sex (not to mention rock and roll.) You did your best to teach them self-control and delayed gratification. You modeled good behaviors and taught safe sex and the perils of addiction. They saw the films in health class. Then they went out and indulged anyway. That is not your fault.

Case in point: There was never a cigarette in our home. We made sure our children saw all the pictures of black lungs and wheezing old geezers and lips eaten away by chaw. Yet the first time one of our pre-teen sons was offered a cigarette, he said, “Okay!” One impulsive act triggered decades of addiction. That was not our fault.

What parent has not wailed, “I thought I taught you not to do that!”  You did teach them They just didn’t learn. Take your cue from professional teachers. They are not in the habit of blaming themselves when 90 percent of the class learns the times tables and 10 percent learns how to stick bubble gum under the desk.

A “must read” for all parents caught in this trap of blame is I Don’t Have to Make Everything All Better by Gary and Joy Lundberg. The authors advise:

“It helps considerably if we remember that we have already taught our adult children most of what they need to know to succeed in life. For the most part, the time for our teaching them is past, though there are appropriate times to share ideas that may be helpful. If we are concerned that we may not have done a good job, it helps to realize that we are not their only source of good information. Generally, given a chance, they will make some wise choices that fit their needs and situations.”

Your parental guilt may also be fueled by the voices that you allow into your head – voices that tell you what a child “should” become or what a parent “should” do. Those “shoulds” leave little room for the human spirit to chart its own path, for good or ill.  A recent reader essay by Ashlee Birk in the Deseret News challenged this need to be “normal.” The “normal” button on Birk’s washing machine was broken and she had to do her laundry on other settings. Her clothes were coming out clean on all the alternate settings, but she compulsively tested the “normal” button, hoping for a miracle. Each time the clothes emerged dry and dirty. In her words:

“I think we all have an idea of what a family should look like — an ideal setting in which we want to strive to live. As individuals, we set goals to become something we are not currently living as. Only in families, when we have our heart set on normal, we almost always fail because the truth is, normal isn’t real. None of us are normal. And just like my washer, no matter how many times I try to force it into that setting, or we try to live in the belief of becoming normal, something is going to go wrong. We stop living life as us and begin aspiring to an unachievable goal. We go through the motions of what we imagine is the normal life, but in the end we are still just a pile of dirty clothes.”

Are you pounding on the “normal” button when your adult children may be “delicate” or “heavy duty?” Your view of what is “normal” may be informed by your peers, the media, your belief system or your religious expectations. But, if your children don’t fit that norm, that’s not your fault.
Next time you blow out the candles on your birthday cake, make a wish for yourself that you will remember the high points in your parenting story. And if your children didn’t take the lessons to heart, well, that’s not your fault.

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