Hope for Critical Parents

Do You Feel Stuck in Unhelpful Parenting? Be Equipped and Encouraged!

“Mom, whenever I clean, you just notice what I missed or didn’t do good enough!” I can still remember one of my kids saying that, and how discouraging it was to me. In my early years of parenting I felt totally stuck in negative, critical thinking, often nagging my kids to “get it right.” But God has been wonderfully faithful, and my journey in learning to look for the good in people and situations has ended up encouraging my kids, and many parents. Whatever unhelpful parenting habit you might feel stuck in, I believe you’ll be encouraged and equipped as I share my personal story (in this longer-than-normal article) of tackling a chronic challenge by faith.  

Feeling Stuck

Looking for the good in situations certainly didn’t come naturally to me. In both high school and college I was told, “You’re the most sarcastic person I know.” I also had a finely tuned ability to find what was wrong and then tell people how they should fix it. This didn’t change when I had a family of my own – I was hard on myself and hard on Jim and the kids. I felt I had been born with a critical, perfectionistic personality that I would be stuck with for life.  

I read a book that told me that this negative/perfectionistic parent personality type, combined with a spontaneous/disorganized child (I had 3 of them), was an extremely challenging combination. I thought, “At least I feel validated in how hard parenting is for me!” I realized I had good reason to feel like this pattern was so ingrained it wouldn’t change. At times I was tempted to give up and resign myself to negativity, but I felt like the Lord posed the question:

“What do you want to model for your kids about how to face a chronic problem or character challenge?”

I answered,  “I want them to see me persevere by faith.”

Tackling This Challenge by Faith

I’ve found that most people with critical perfectionist tendencies are also pretty dedicated to work hard at the things that are important to them. I was no exception, and I decided to pour that work ethic and effort into developing a new mindset. Instead of creating a task list that focused on fixing my kids, I worked on positive habits for my own personal and spiritual growth:

  • I memorized scripture, like Philippians 4:8, to refer to often.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8

  • I prayed that God would work in my life. I had confidence that God was at work and that my mind could be transformed.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2

  • I read Tired of Trying to Measure Up where I learned to give myself more grace.
  • I asked God to help me identify helpful and hopeful truths when I was stuck in repeated negative thoughts, and I journaled insights. I learned that when my beliefs about myself sound like a hurtful statement of identity, combined with a prediction of a hopeless future, (ie:”I am a negative person…and that will never change.”) it’s quite possible that spiritual forces that oppose God’s truth are behind that toxic belief.
  • I developed more helpful, hopeful, and accurate truths like this:“Sometimes I’m prone to have negative thoughts. Jesus and I are working together to grow my faith-filled thoughts!”
  • I learned to self-affirm as I made a little progress, or had an encouraging interaction with my kids: “That’s the way I like it!” or “That sure felt better!”
  • I empowered my kids to confront me respectfully if I slipped into negative or critical habits. Instead of “Mom, you’re so picky!” or occasionally, on a bad day,“Get off my back!” they learned to say, “I’m feeling micromanaged.” or “Did you also notice what I did well?”
  • I looked for gifts gone awry (for both myself and my kids) like it was a treasure hunt for God’s creative work in us. I learned to truly value the upside (“gift gone right”) of my perfectionism that could go awry and morph into negative nagging. I realized my gift for structure and following through with details was essential to really help our lively, disorganized kiddos. (As young adults they have thanked me for my “systems” we used in their childhood, and have implemented quite a few of their own.)

A defining moment happened one day when I had slipped back into criticizing and nagging our very distractible teenage son, Daniel, for not following through on responsibilities. Shortly after this tense interaction, the two of us headed out to a school event in a rather sour mood. After a few miles he described my nagging like this: “Mom, you’re like a little dog, yapping at my heels!”

I was furious, and was glad the car didn’t have an ejector button! I prayed and said nothing, because I knew I had nothing good to say. His words echoed around the quiet car and back into his ears (definitely an advantage of a silent response), and he finally said, “You’re kinda quiet.”  

God’s grace had been at work, and I responded, “Well, that was kind of hard to hear, so I was asking the Lord to show me something good under the surface of it. And I think He told me that you have a really strong gift for… vivid word pictures.” (Knowing the fight/flight state of my brain, I know that it wasn’t me but the Holy Spirit that had that creative insight.)

At that point I could have continued, as Jim or I often did when identifying a gift-gone-awry in our kids, “But how you’re using that gift right now is not very helpful.” Instead, I chose to say, “And I believe God is going to use that gift someday to convince people of His love for them.”

Done. No need to say anything else. More silence. “I’m sorry, Mom.” A sincere apology, flowing from deeper respect. It was a defining moment for both of us that we have referred back to numerous times over the years as he has realized he really does have that creative gift of words to teach and encourage.

The Fruit of Perseverance

After years of ups and downs, and sometimes thinking I’m making little progress with this lifelong challenge, my kids have been a great source of encouragement to me:

Bethany was pretty discouraged about her chronic challenge with disorganization and feeling like it would never get better. I shared my journey of learning to not be so critical, and even the question I had asked myself about what I wanted to model for my kids. She was encouraged by the progress she’d seen me make over time. In recent years she has repeatedly commented on how I’m able to find the best in a difficult situation.

Daniel did go on to use his gift of “vivid word pictures” on several occasions to powerfully describe the magnitude of God’s love as he spoke in several student chapels. But the fun personal interaction that marked the fruit of my journey was the day I had slipped into “reminding” (more like nagging him with a furrowed brow) to return a call to a friend of mine about Daniel’s budding photography business. He took a deep breath, and graciously said, “Mom, I appreciate your concern for my photography business. How you’re using that concern is not very helpful.” I smiled sheepishly, and acknowledged his graceful response. “I learned it from you, ya know,” he said, as he smiled and gave me a hug.

Noah wrote this personal greeting on the inside of my seating tag for his wedding reception. It will always be precious to me, a sign of God’s transforming power and grace:

What’s Your Challenge?

So maybe being critical, negative, and prone to nagging isn’t your chronic challenge. But what is? Nearly every parent struggles with something that can be chronic and discouraging. How will you persevere by faith to grow toward being the parent you want to be?

Imagine your parenting journey to be like climbing a mountain. It would be much easier to take a helicopter to the peak, where you are consistently calm and wise and so are your kids! But God is far more interested in teaching us about His mercy and care for us as we take the long journey upward on the mountain: holding His hand in trust and dependence as we slug thru the mud, cross the rushing streams, find our way out of the woods, and climb those challenging boulders. So grab His hand and begin your journey, because every inch higher on the mountain comes through deepening our relationship with our precious Savior, and that process is far more important to God than our parenting perfection.  

…it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Philippians 2:13


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