What I want you and your spouse to know is that guilty parenting is not a crime. If you feel guilty about having caused some suffering, it’s a sign that you’re a good person, it means you have empathy! Guilt is actually a healthy emotion, it’s supposed to help you modify your behaviour. It pushes you to do better.
Shame is another story altogether. Shame shuts you down, makes you want to give up. That’s because guilt is about something you’ve done and shame is about who you are. Nobody should ever be shamed for their parenting fails; it doesn’t lead anyone down the road of a better life.
We all feel like we’ve let our kids down in some way, we feel guilty for the divorce that messed up their lives, we feel guilty that we can’t spend more time with them, that their standard of living has been affected, that you had kids with the wrong person, whatever.
What we don’t want to do is let guilty feelings hold us back from being the kind of parent our kids both need and really want. Guilty feelings should lead us to double down on our commitment to our kids; to make it up to them, (whatever we think “it” is) by being 100% of the dad they need even if we only get to be with them 50% of the time.
We don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to make it up to them with stuff; believe me, they don’t actually want stuff. And, they also don’t want to be the boss. Being the boss of the adults is not a secure place for a kid. They want to be taken care of – to feel taken care of in whatever way they need. They need to see you in all your integrity, and guilt is just the thing to push you to do that, to do it for them.
Nobody else can do what you can do for your child/ren. Think about this: nobody complains to their therapist about how they never felt like they could ever be good enough for their Little League coach, their Boy Scout leader, their third grade teacher or the dad next door. We all spend our lives trying to win the approval of our parents and nobody else; your kids are hardwired to want to please you! You simply need to learn the trick to hacking into that desire and using it! You owe it to them to do that. If you’re a guilty dad, you’re a motivated dad.
I have three easy steps for you that are designed to help get you out of your own way and to renew confidence in your ability to parent the way you really want to, even through the disappointment and challenges of separation or divorce.
Don’t change a thing! Not yet, at least.
Without changing how you interact with your kids, just start to become aware of what you’re already doing. Try to notice how you feel when it’s time to correct your kids, when you’re “picking your battles”. The best coaches high-performance athletes and business leaders don’t tell them what to change, they just get them to pay attention to aspects of what they’re already doing.
Here’s a little exercise:
Q: When your child is misbehaving or annoying you, what do you feel in your body?
Q: Which times of day is your child likely to be more co-operative or or more disruptive?
Q: Do you prefer to have some routine and structure in your family life or do you like to just go with the flow?
Maybe you’re a permissive parent by nature. It’s good to learn about the 4 main parenting styles. This could really help you to figure out how naturally approach parenting and how you might choose to adapt that to get the outcome you’re really after.
Sit back and let your child do the talking. Just be curious; there’s nothing more seductive than someone asking you questions. Did you know that your chances of getting hired at a job interview increase by asking more questions about the company? Not only that, but your chances of getting to a second date with someone are higher if you just ask more questions on your first date!
If nothing else, just repeat what your kids say back to them with a sort of question mark at the end. Keep them talking and keep asking questions. Kids, like all people, want to be heard and understood.
It’s important to notice whenever you’re “zoning out”. Passive listening is not the same as active listening, and neither of them are effective if you’re looking at your phone. You want them to perceive that you’re interested in them, and the rest will fall into place.
Try and catch yourself zoning out instead of listening or asking questions.
Q: What’s your go-to escape hatch? Your phone? The TV? Work?
Q: How does it feel when you keep yourself present? Bored? Frustrated? Restless? Annoyed? Reminded of your ex?
Be curious about that too – notice how you feel. When you shine a light on something, it has a funny tendency to melt away on its own in time!
Stop thinking about punishments; instead, focus on follow through. What’s the difference? It’s subtle, but really important.
There are really only 3 reasons to discipline your kids:
- for safety,
- to build confidence, and
- as a way of giving life guidance.
Everything else is just noise. You don’t have to discipline your kids in the precise way that you were raised, or in a way that satisfies your partner’s style of parenting. Your job as a parent is to keep them safe, whether that’s preventing them from running out into the street without looking both ways, or teaching them how to resist the addictive pull of gaming. It’s your job to help them feel supported so they can confidently challenge themselves – in sports, in academics, in relationships. And of course, it’s your role to point them in the direction of achieving their greatest potential. Discipline, at its best, keeps pointing them there again and again, the way a good coach keeps you focused on the end result of effort and excellence more than on the instant gratification of winning the next point.
As the parent of a child living in two homes, you’re constantly walking a fine line between holding limits for your kids and going easy on them so they don’t tell their mom they don’t like it at your house. In the case of teens, there’s a fear that if they don’t like your rules they just won’t want to come over any more. The good news is, discipline is not about enforcing endlessly increasing punishments. It’s about choosing consequences that feel effortless for you to follow through with so you can demonstrate your integrity.
The number one path to superhero parenting is to show your integrity: consistently doing what you say you’re going to do. You don’t have to be an ogre. You can remain open and loving while you hold your ground. Start by offering something small rewards – ideally something involving your time and attention. If they don’t comply, you’re always ready to try again to help them to do better tomorrow.
If you’d like some quick tips and sample phrases to get you started, you can grab my free cheat sheet called 100% Dad in Half the Time. You can hear my full podcast on this topic at the Essential Stepmom podcast wherever you listen. And there’s a Facebook group just for bio dads in blended families called One For The Dads. Send us a join request, we’d be glad to see you there!