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I Was a Critical Parent: 6 Steps I Took to Find a More Loving Way

critical parent

“Mom, whenever I clean, you just notice what I missed or didn’t do good enough!” I still remember one of my kids saying that and how discouraging it was. It was a reckoning moment. I didn’t want to be a critical parent, but I didn’t know how to stop being so critical.

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! My journey in “learning to look for the good” in people and situations has ended up encouraging both my kids and many parents.

You may have your own unhelpful parenting challenge. Mine was critical parenting. I hope you’ll be encouraged and equipped through my story of hope.

I couldn’t stop being so critical because I believed my negativity was a part of me

Looking for the good in situations certainly didn’t come naturally to me. Friends told me in high school and college, “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 a negative/perfectionistic parent (me) personality type, who is trying to parent 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!” 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.”

critical parent

Then my son called me out on my critical parenting

A defining moment happened one day when I 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 kind of 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 powerful 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 I often did when identifying a gift-gone-awry in one of our kids: “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 your gift for vivid word pictures 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 inspiration 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 dedicated to working hard at the things that are important to them. I was no exception and 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 6 habits I cultivated to help me stop being such a critical parent

1. 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, and praiseworthy in my kids. It’s hard to be a critical parent when you’re frequently 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 would 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 would change even my critical parent tendencies.

3. 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:

  • The insidious lies that tripped me up were often: a hurtful statement of identity + a prediction of a hopeless future (i.e., “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!”

4. 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!”

5. 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?”

6. 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, details, and follow-through. This was helpful for our lively, disorganized children, and as young adults, they have thanked me for the “systems” we used in their childhood and have implemented quite a few of their own.

In addition to the 6 habits I worked hard at cultivating that are listed above, I also read Tired of Trying to Measure Up, a profound, practical book that helped me learn to give myself more grace.

As I left the “critical parent” label behind, my kids encouraged me

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

  • Bethany shared with me her chronic challenge with disorganization, which she felt would never get better. In turn, I told her about my journey of learning to not be so critical and even shared 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 can find the best in a difficult situation.
  • Daniel began to notice gifts gone awry in other people. He even noted it one time when I relapsed back into a little micro-managing of our budding entrepreneur, “Mom, I appreciate your concern for my photography business. How you’re showing it right now is not very helpful.” I thanked him for his gracious, positive perspective, and he stated, “I learned it from you, you know.”
  • Noah wrote this personal greeting inside my seating tag for his wedding reception. It will always be precious to me, a sign of God’s transforming power and grace:
Noah place card

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 of “Perfect Parenting Mountain,” where you are calm and wise all the time, and so are your kids!

But…God is more interested in teaching us about His mercy and care for us as we take the long journey upward on the mountain of parenting growth. 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. Through perseverance and faith, it’s possible to stop being so critical and grow into more grace-filled responses. So, move toward God and start this journey toward graceful parenting.

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Lynne Jackson
Lynne Jackson
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