Posted by: Kate | April 24, 2008

(Not) Good Enough

There’s a certain trend, among friends and acquaintances and strangers – women, almost entirely – to talk about how unsure and stressed they are as parents, how inadequate. Parenting by professed ineptitude seems to be the cool thing to do; not to actually be inept, but to talk about how uncertain and insecure they feel. I don’t think it’s a deliberate ploy for reassurance and validation; I think many women do feel mommy-guilt and crushing anxiety about all of their perceived shortcomings.

I understand this. Motherhood is one of the most important things I will ever do with my life. There is such an overwhelming responsibility to create functional, likable adults, and that responsibility can’t be passed off to someone else at will. It’s painfully easy to get wrapped up in the fears. The fears about screwing up, about being too strict or too lenient, about forgetting to talk about sex or drugs or money or personal hygiene or manners before it’s too late to have lasting effects, about knowing when it’s time to go to the doctor or the teacher or the therapist, or a million other things that pop up as soon as one crisis is addressed.

But I accept that I’m not the only player in this particular game. Other people influence my kids, for better and for worse, including the kids themselves. Guilt is a waste of energy, an exercise in dwelling on that which you can’t change or can’t impact. And I know I’m a competent individual, and a decent mom. I do my best, and it is good enough. My kids are fed and sheltered and entertained; they’re challenged and engaged and loved. The missed opportunities and found screw-ups are smaller than the competencies and successes.

So I don’t much dwell on the doubts and fears. They’re there, because that’s what happens when a piece of your heart lives outside your body, but they’re not the biggest piece of my motherhood. I can share, and authentically so, my insecurities and mistakes when it helps someone else feel more understood, less alone, less hopeless. But as a daily existence, I prefer to focus on the reality of children that are happy and well-adjusted. I think of myself as a good mom with flaws, rather than a flawed mom with redeeming qualities.

This all brings me around to last night. Yesterday was a long day, emotionally and chronologically. I brought Jacob back to preschool for the first time since he got sick, and felt horrible about it. The boy had pneumonia, he’s little, he’s still healing, and I want him to be home and recovering. But Willem couldn’t stay home, and my tentative plan to drop him off for a few hours while I cleaned up some odds and ends was squelched by a completely insane day at work. There were nine assessments in the course of the day, which might just be a departmental record, and each one was complicated and challenging in its own way. Every hour, I called the daycare, and every hour they assured me that Jacob seemed happy and comfortable, and so I let him stay there for the full day. But the miserable guilt, or guilty misery, crept in and sat on my shoulders for the duration.

In the evening, I had about an hour to pick up both kids – Emily was in a day camp, since it’s school vacation week, 10 miles away – buy two eight-packs of Gatorade for a mandatory donation to her softball team, get gas, get dinner, and make it to Emily’s first softball practice. We ended up sitting on the bleachers eating McDonald’s food, but we made it on time and enjoyed the evening.

We got home at bedtime, and everyone cooperated for the teeth/pajamas/story/music routine. They were in bed, ready to sleep, by 8:00, and it was finally my turn to change out of my work clothes, grab a drink, use the bathroom. As soon as I’d closed the bathroom door, I heard Emily get out of bed and walk down the hallway. I assumed she was using the other bathroom, and perhaps she was. By the time I was out, she was back in her bedroom.

I had already called for lights out, but hers was still on. Rather than yell down the hallway, I walked to her doorway to ask again. I arrived in time to watch her put something into her mouth; when she realized I was there, she shoved something else in and turned her head away from me.

It was at that precise moment that my evening was ruined.

She has purloined candy and treats before. We’re pretty permissive with that sort of thing, in general: we have a candy bowl or a cookie jar, and they’re allowed to select their own dessert if they’ve eaten well. I was operating under the theory that if you don’t make something forbidden, you can teach appropriate, moderated use instead of having kids who binge and sneak – and this applies to candy, television, toys, and so on. She had not eaten well last night, plus we were pressed for time, so the no-dessert statute applied. Both kids understood. Or so I thought.

When I asked her, in bed, where food is strictly forbidden under all circumstances because we have had ants in the house, and yuck, what she had in her mouth, she lied. “Nothing, I don’t have anything.” A quick sniff revealed the truth, and I was angry that she had stolen a cookie and much angrier that she had lied about it. We just went through this a few weeks ago with a piece of candy, and I’m certain our message was clear: it’s one thing to screw up, and an entirely different thing to lie about it.

I left for a few minutes, and then returned to suggest that she might want to stop wailing and carrying on, since (a) it was her behavior that caused it, and (b) the noise and the drama was making me insane. I lifted up a pillow at the foot of her bed to be able to see her better, and found a stash of several more cookies, and a candy wrapper. She had insisted that she had nothing else in her bed at the first interaction, so the lies just stacked up. I emptied her bed of stuffed animals, books, extra pillows, several more candy wrappers and a thin coating of cookie crumbs, and informed her that she would be staying home, no day camp on Thursday, to clean her room and remain in there, alone, grounded.

It’s harsh, I know. She loves – loves – the day camp, and today’s activity was a trip to a nearby science center. But she damaged my trust in her, and I want to come down hard on this behavior, the sneaking and the lying. She’s done it before, so I’m seeing the beginning of a trend. She’ll be brushing her teeth a few extra times a day, too, as a reminder of the dangers of eating sweets after bedtime.

And I feel like crap. I don’t have any idea how to fix this, how to motivate a child to be more honest and trustworthy. We’ve given her responsibility and space, we’ve let her help decide on the house rules, we’ve avoided spankings and random punishments and focused on natural consequences for actions, good and bad. My very best efforts as a parent have created someone who will steal and lie about stupid, little things now, and she just turned eight. I am terrified about her teenage years, because I know what mine were like, and I was downright reserved compared to her.

My brain knows that I’m doing a good enough job, that it’s natural to try and get away with things and that this does not signal a life of crime and immorality for my child, that her impulsive act is not a reflection on my personal worth. That I’m still a good enough mother. But my heart isn’t so sure.


  1. Being relatively new at this parenting thing I have no words of advice (nor do I necessarily think that’s what you’re looking for). I think you handled the situation well, and I think that as long as you remain consistent you’ll get through to her.

    But man, that totally sucks after such a long, somewhat rotten day. Hope today was/is better.

  2. Actions cause consequences – for good or bad. I think you handled the situation correctly.

  3. Sorry to hear about that. Not being a mother myself, my instinct is to just chalk it up to kids being kids, and pushing boundaries as they learn about actions and consequences. When my little sister was a little older than your daughter, my parents caught her buying junk food on her school lunch money card–there was a debit card system for the cafeteria, and little did my sister know my parents could go into the account and see what the money had been spent on. She had been telling them she was eating sandwiches and salads, and my parents trusted her. When they happened to look at the account one day, it turned out it was all Snickers and potato chips. It feels bad for both of you right now, but I’m sure she’ll remember the lesson next time.

  4. That was the golden rule growing up in my house. If you did something wrong, you’d have a consequence. If you lied about it, life as you knew it changed. That’s when the heavy groundings and restrictions came in to play. Even though I tried to get away with it as a teenager and got caught sometimes and didn’t get caught other times, I did learn the lesson about lying. I can’t lie well and I can’t stand being lied to. I think you are right to hold firm on this one.

  5. I always tell my kids that I can forgive the bad behavior much more quickly than I can forgive the lie. Sounds like you handled it perfectly, Kate.

  6. All you can do is the best you can in any given moment, set the best examples and be consistent. They will know the difference between right and wrong, and make their own choices.

    Adolescence scares me, too…

  7. Along with the consequences for lying, perhaps to sit down and examine why she’s craving carbs and sugar could help figure this out. She’s feeding an appetite craving that is expanding into other negative behavior.

    Parenting is a step at a time, hoping for the best, coping with the worst.

  8. I think you handled the situation fairly. She is paying the consequences of her actions. Cleaning her room to rid the chance of ants, and since she had to clean her room, she could not do an activity that she would enjoy.

  9. Kate, mine are now adults at 21 and 23 and turned out just fine despite testing me in every way possible at that age. Seriously, ‘time out’ and removal of privelidges was always the best way to deal with any misdemeanour. I agree so much with the comments above, consistency is absolutely paramount. As is not going into long winded explanations “You lied, you will be punished” that’s it. My sister ‘reasons’ with her 8 year old and waxes on with lengthy diatribes about mummy feeling disappointed etc. and you can see the kid’s eyes glaze over . . all she’s hearing is ‘bla bla bla . . .”

    All kids lie. Especially 8 year olds who are testing you and 8 year old girls are particularly good at pushing buttons when you’re tired and vulnerable. You did the right thing to deny her something she enjoys and to focus on the lie rather than the act. Mind you, wouldn’t hurt to hide the snacks!

    Parenting can be difficult, I just told my kids that I was new at all of this as well . . they seemed to accept that it was a learning curve for us all.

  10. I agree that you handled this well, Kate. I really truly believe she is just testing the boundaries as those teen years approach. I think if you are consistent with the consequences for the unwanted behavior she will learn. After watching my mom and sister go at it for years I can honestly tell you that it took my sister a long time to learn some lessons and some at the expense of my mom’s sanity. I do recall my parents not being consistent and the punishment not fitting the “crime.” I truly think you fit the 2 together. Keep communication open (which I am sure you will) and hopefully Emily, Willem and you can hash this out.

  11. BTW you are BEYOND GOOD ENOUGH in my eyes. (Not that it matters though)

  12. Of course it matters, Destiny, and it helps. It helps to hear it from everyone.

    I hear lots of people talk about how they don’t feel like they’re doing a good enough job as parents, but I don’t hear a lot of people admitting to the bad behavior (in whatever form it takes) of the child … except as proof of their own inadequacy as parents. So when my kid lies and steals, I feel like it’s a reflection on me, even though realistically I know I did my best to prevent this behavior and she makes choices, too.

    Ugh. So much work, keeping these small people alive.

  13. FWIW, I heard myself say last weekend, as we entered a school for a Musical where I knew virtually no one, “…and be on your best behaviour; your behaviour is a reflection of your parents.” And then I wondered how my mother managed to invade my body!!

    Kate, you’re doing an amazing job of raising a confident, self-assured, delightful daughter, (I know, I’ve met her!!)and yes, she’s going to make mistakes along the way. Unfortunately, it was one that was deliberate, and that hurts to the core as a parent because we think they should know better, that we should have instilled it in them by now. We also have the rule in our house, that to tell the truth means fewer consequences. It doesn’t mean *no* consequences though. I love your consequences and would like to think that I’d have done the same thing. I’m sure she’s learned her lesson…

    Big hugs my friend – you help me through the teenage girl years and I’ll help you through the teenage boy years!! (Although knowing the personalities of our boys vs. our girls, I know I’ll have the easier job!!) xo

  14. You handled the situation perfectly, my dear. Sometimes, my oldest child disappoints me too – but I still love him. Same as you. My parents forgave me so many millions of times, I figure I owe the same to my chili-beans. {{{{GREAT BIG MOM Hugs for you}}}}

  15. As Baino pointed out this is very age appropriate behavior. I remember the sinking feeling I had the first time my oldest looked me in the eye and lied to me, staight faced. (Maybe I should have run away then…) Consistency is the key. I’ve been consistent and inconsistent and consistent works better. Girls and moms have very different relationships than boys and moms, sometimes this can be challenging. My mother, if she were alive, would regale you with my awfulness from age 9-26.

    I’m sorry your innocence was dented. It hurts, I know.

    You might think about one healthy snack before bedtime, or in a ziplock next to the bed, she might be growing and hungry as well. I’m not saying it’s that simple but it might have a small part.

    You’re the bestest mom!!!! Hugs.

  16. I think I might have played a small role in this. When I was visiting over the summer, Emily would come and see me early in the morning and would sometimes ask if I had anything to eat in my bag and if I had a mint or something I’d give it to her. Sometimes she’d call it a secret but I didn’t think anything of it, and certainly didn’t mean her to see it as sneaking or hiding. It’s not the same because she would then go and eat breakfast but I can see how Emily might associate the two. Anyway, it doesn’t excuse her at all, I just wanted to put it out there.
    I’m not an expert but I think getting mad at kids when they lie teaches them their words are important. So nice job, Kate.

  17. Ah, the truth arises… it’s her beloved and innocent-looking aunt bringing her down the road to crime.

    No, Mary, sorry… she’d done it once before your visit, too. But thanks.

  18. you’d be surprised…

    you should see the hip flask i have picked out for her 9th birthday.

  19. Kate honey, I don’t have to tell you that a kid’s job is to bump up against parental boundaries and the parents’ job is to make sure those boundaries stay firmly in place. The best thing you can do is enforce those boundaries and make sure the consequences are followed through. That’s where a lot of parents fail their children. Because the follow through is uncomfortable for both the parent and the child, parents cave, thereby teaching the child that the boundaries and consequences didn’t mean anything anyway, setting a bad precedent for next time. Naturally, the next time the offense will be beyond whatever the first boundary was. The other major failure in parenting is when the parent makes threats about the consequences of boundary violation then doesn’t follow through with them when the child bumps up against that boundary, which also teaches the child that Mom & Dad may bluster about (insert consequence here), but they don’t mean it, thereby completely undermining Mom & Dad’s credibility.

    Frankly, I’m a big believer in being harder on the kids when they’re younger and getting those lessoned learned very young. It’s a hell of a lot easier than waiting until they’re nearly grown and trying to reestablish parental control and credibility. You’re doing the right thing Kate – even though it’s uncomfortable. One day you will thank yourself for not allowing Emily to crash through this boundary. Maybe Emily will thank you for it one day, too.

  20. […] or stealing objets d’art and fencing the goods. It’s always about little things… cookies in bed, for instance, or dubious origins of small toys and pencils that might have come from a friend on […]

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