“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. It was a reckoning moment. I didn’t want to be a critical parent.
In my early years of parenting I felt totally stuck in negative, overly critical parenting, 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.
You probably have your own unhelpful parenting challenge. Mine was critical parenting. I hope you’ll be encouraged and equipped through my story of hope.
I believed my negativity was a part of me
Looking for the good in situations certainly didn’t come naturally to me. In both high school and college I was told by friends, “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 the most challenging combination. I thought, “At least I feel validated in how hard parenting is for me!” Given all I was learning, 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 critical parenting, 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.”
Then my son called me out on my critical parenting
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. Boy was I glad the car didn’t have an ejector button!
I prayed and said nothing, because I knew I had nothing good to say.
My silent response allowed his words to echo around the quiet car and back into his ears. He finally said, “You’re kinda quiet.”
God’s grace at work
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 given 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.
For me, that moment became the impetus to get serious about overcoming my critical parent tendencies.
By faith, I was determined to tackle my perfectionist tendencies
Good news! 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 these high standards and work ethic 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:
The 7 tasks I gave myself to cut the criticism
- I memorized scripture 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
- This scripture reminded me to look for what was noble, lovely, praiseworthy in my kids. It’s hard to be a critical parent, when you’re constantly looking for what’s praiseworthy.
2. 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
- This was another scripture that I repeated to myself, which gave me confidence that God could change even my critical parent tendencies.
3. I read Tired of Trying to Measure Up where I learned to give myself more grace.
4. I asked God to help me identify helpful and hopeful truths when I was stuck in repeated negative thoughts, and I journaled insights.
- I discovered a pattern to the lies I believed:
- “A hurtful statement of identity” + “a prediction of hopeless future” = lies I was vulnerable to
- (ie:”I am a negative person…and that will never change.”)
- 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!”
5. 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!”
6. I empowered my kids to confront me respectfully if I slipped into negative or critical habits.
- Instead of “Mom, you’re so picky!” or, “Get off my back!” they learned to say, “I’m feeling micromanaged.” or “Did you also notice what I did well?”
7. 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 negative nagging, which was a gift for structure and details. This was helpful for our lively, disorganized children, and as young adults they have thanked me for my “systems” we used in their childhood, and have implemented quite a few of their own.
As I left the critical parent behind, my kids thrived in their giftings
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 began to notice gifts-gone-awry in other people, and even once returned the favor to me as he looked for the caring motivation behind my over-attention to other people’s details. As I appreciated his graciousness he stated, “I learned it from you, ya know.”
- 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:
Even if you’re not a critical parent…
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.
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. We get to hold His hand in trust and dependence as we slug through the mud, cross the rushing streams, find our way out of the woods, and climb those challenging boulders. Grab His hand and begin your journey! 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
And if, like me, critical parenting is a part of your story, it doesn’t have to be your future. Move toward God and start this journey toward graceful parenting.
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