Parenting: The Day I Became Darth Vader
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
-Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, 69.
My dear, sweet Mother-in-Law threw me a birthday party last Sunday at her house. Now, when my Mother-in-Law throws a party, there is always a theme of epic proportions. She loves themes – for example, when we brought our daughter Abbie home we celebrated with Dora … Dora. Dora. Dora the explorer. Dora was everywhere. Dora dolls, pictures, streamers, balloons, paper plates and napkins filled our living room. It was as if someone from Nickelodeon threw up Dora all over our living room … err … I mean delightfully graced our living room with all things Dora.
The theme for my birthday was Star Wars. Which, due to the Mother-in-Law, was all kinds of awesome. She bought three Darth Vader masks, one for each of the Ericksen boys. And this 34-year-old Ericksen boy instantly thought: NEW FACEBOOK PROFILE PIC!!!!!!!!!!!!
I was still wearing my suit from church that morning and I thought the Darth Vader mask juxtaposed with the suit would inspire awe and fascination from my Facebook friends. (Because, you know, that’s what Facebook is all about.) But for a perfect picture, I needed the Boys to wear their masks. And I needed them to cross their arms, as if we were a bunch of baaaad dudes.
Because a picture of a six year old in a Hawaiian shirt, a four year old in a flannel shirt, and their dad in a suit, each wearing a $2.99 plastic Darth Vader mask with their arms crossed just screams “baaaad dudes.”
As you can tell, not everyone liked my idea. The six year old refused to cross his arms. I kept asking him. I was playful at first. “C’mon! Do it for your Dad! It’s my birthday!” But he kept refusing. Of course, the more he refused, the more I wanted him to do it! So my mood quickly went from playful to anger and I became a Dark Lord of the Sith.
“If you don’t cross your arms right now … well … no cake for you!” And thus I channeled the horrifying combination of Darth Vader and … umm … the Cake Nazi? The poor boy went running upstairs to his bedroom in a self-imposed time out.
Parenting can be so hard. Shame lurks around every corner. Sometimes I shame my children when they refuse to do the things I want them to do. Then I feel shame because somewhere along the way I got the message that good children are supposed to submit to the will of their Fathers, so I must be doing something wrong. Then I think, Wait…I’m raising bad children!!! Maybe I’m too lenient! Maybe I’m too strict!! Oh crap. I suck at this. JUST CROSS YOUR ARMS!!!!!
But as I watched him walk up the stairs I realized that I’d shamed him with a ridiculous threat. I began to experience my own sense of shame as I realized I was in danger of becoming that Dad who loves his kids only when they conform to his demands.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown says that “Shame is the fear of disconnection … [that we are] unworthy of connection.” That’s the problem with parenting strategies of threats and time outs. Time outs disconnect us from our children at a time when what our children really need is a sense of connection. Threats are the ultimate in shaming at a time when what children really need is to know their ultimate worth.
Six years ago I was talking with a trusted friend about my parenting fears. He gave me two pieces of advice that remain with me. The first was that my primary responsibility as a Dad was to make sure my children know that I love them. It’s a simple point, yet also complicated. Among other things, love requires ensuring safety, opportunities, and providing appropriate boundaries for my children. But love also requires the second piece of advice, which was forgiveness. Forgive yourself for the inevitable mistakes you will make in parenting. With that advice in mind, I headed upstairs. When I found my boy, his head was covered with a pillow, which, of course, broke my Daddy heart. I sat next to him, rubbed his back, and told him I was sorry. He mumbled something very sad through his pillow and then told me he wanted some alone time.
“Okay.” I replied. “I love you. We’ll be eating downstairs. You can come when you are ready.”
Parents can beat ourselves up over these types of mistakes, playing them repeatedly in our minds. When our children see us doing that, it implicitly teaches them to beat themselves up over mistakes, too. In parenting, as in every aspect of our lives, without forgiveness we enslave ourselves and one another to past mistakes. Forgiveness frees us from those mistakes and frees us into a future of new possibilities; new patterns of behavior that move us away from being the Dark Lord of the Sith to reflecting an unconditional love that heals our relationships with our children.