As soon as I’d done it, I knew it was unforgiveable. By the end of this particular family argument, I should have accepted my “worst mum in the world” medal and sat on the naughty step under a cloud of shame.
During a loud row about excessive screen time, I’d lost my temper in frustration and physically snatched my 14-year-old daughter’s phone from her hand. I was full of fury as we wrestled over the device like cartoon characters. When she asked why she had to give it to me I bellowed the worst of all parenting phrases at her: “Because I said so.”
This tussle was an epic parenting fail. If all behaviour is communication, as the parenting experts I’ve interviewed have told me, what the hell was I saying here? My behaviour in that moment, and others too private to mention, was unacceptable.
I still feel guilty about it, but I’ve discovered – as a mum of four children aged between 10 and 18 – that parenting is as much about getting it wrong as it is getting it right. The constant push and pull between “parent” and “self” is emotionally complicated, but I’ve learnt that imperfect parenting plays a useful and healthy part in your child’s development. Remembering we are people as well as parents is a good thing.
Lately, more parents have felt able to share the moments they messed up on the parenting front, too. Even seemingly picture-perfect parents like Ben and Marina Fogle have admitted they lose their temper with and around their kids.
I have been interviewing experts for over a decade and one of their main messages is that mums and dads don’t have to be perfect; we should aim for “good enough”. Parenting is not a test or a competition and we’re not “fixing” our offspring.
Of course, constantly yelling at your kids is a bad thing (we’re adults, we all know that), but perhaps we can embrace the idea that stress is normal in families, that our children can learn from seeing us react honestly to the daily stresses we are under, especially post pandemic, because in mental-health terms experiencing stress often leads to growth and makes us more emotionally durable.
Exposing your kids to stress will help develop their resilience. Letting them see you mess up, recover and apologise when necessary is teaching them a valuable lesson.
Recently, picture-perfect parents like Ben and Marina Fogle have admitted they lose their temper with and around their kids
Credit: Andrew Crowley
Role modelling the behaviour you want to see is of course one of the tent poles of parenting, but we often feel this means we must always be on our best behaviour, which is neither practical nor possible. One of the most important life lessons on the human condition is to accept that we occasionally unravel.?
Witnessing our temporary unravellings may be helpful for our kids because they can watch us pull ourselves together again. Hearing us tell them that tomorrow is another day and we can all start over is a useful parenting skill.
And I’ve noticed that holding onto shame around our bad behaviour is unhelpful, too. Give yourself a break when you mess up, tell your inner critic to pipe down and learn ways to recover from the bad times.
I have a bit of a short fuse, for example; I know this is a weakness but if I lose it occasionally I try to make sure I am yelling about what I feel about a situation, not what I feel about the kids personally. I switch the responsibility for my fury to me so I don’t shame them.?
And in those moments, which are inevitable parenting hiccups, they get to see what a normal, flawed adult looks like. I also understand they may not always like what they see, in the same way you may not always like what you see in your kids, especially when they hit the tricky teenage years.
I’m glad we’ve come a long way from the days of a more child-centric parenting ethos when a maternity nurse told me, 18 years ago, to “always be smiling when baby looks at you”. It’s a piece of advice which caused me extreme anguish as I wandered the house desperately comforting a colicky newborn grinning like a loon but feeling a lonely failure inside. Hiding your sadness is not a lesson anyone should teach a child.
And nowadays I am glad to say the overall theme from experts is to tilt yourself in the direction of imperfect parenting. Showing your kids who you really are means they don’t feel responsible for making you stay happy all the time, plus they see you’re not perfect all the time so you relieve them of the pressure to be perfect, too. Or as my two spirited teen daughters now say to me, mimicking a popular online meme, “You do you, Boo. You do you.”
Mum, What’s Wrong With You: 101 Things Only Mothers of Teenage Girls Know by Lorraine Candy (4th Estate, ￡14.99) is out now. Pick up a copy from the Telegraph Bookshop.?
‘I had to do my best to protect my son’s modesty with a pair of cycling gloves’
When Nell Frizzell went swimming with friends in the Thames, with her son alongside, she forgot one important item
Credit: Nell Frizzell
There is a particular flavour of shame that comes from standing beside a small, crying child in just a swimsuit. In winter. My son had been potty training for a few months. I say training. He had been calmly but unhesitatingly urinating down his own legs for several laundry-heavy weeks. Nevertheless, I had made a plan to meet a small group of women for a quick swim on our stretch of the Thames.
As we wheeled along the towpath, towards the swimming spot, I heard my son call out in his sing-song voice: “I need a wee.” We were mere metres away from our destination, there were people walking behind me and a deep watery drop on the other side. Stopping was, for a few precious seconds, not an option.
“Just hold on, darling!” I called out, pedalling for all my worth.
And then, of course, I felt it. The warm spray of someone else’s wee down the backs of my legs. Pulling over, I knew that we were a good few fluid ounces beyond too late.
Lifting him from the freshly-drenched bike seat and pulling off his damp trousers, I rummaged through the bag for something – anything – that might cover his acorn-sized manhood. Somehow, despite packing a thermos of tea, a towel, extra socks and even some flapjacks for me, I had brought along not a single change of trousers or pants for my son.?
All I could find was a red, long-sleeved T-shirt with a giraffe printed across the front. Somehow I persuaded my now semi-naked son to push his trembling legs down each sleeve and tied the hem tight around his waist with a rubber band. The only snag in the plan was the collar-shaped hole gaping open in the wrong place.?
A fair breeze was whipping up there already and we hadn’t even started moving. He looked – let me be kind here – like a miniature festival casualty wearing a bespoke pair of crotchless harem pants on a patch of wintery mud.
And yet, I had my swim. My son cheered up almost instantly after being given my flapjack to gnaw on and was happy to sit on a variety of well-ventilated laps as I bobbed about in the wet. I did my best to protect his modesty with a pair of cycling gloves. I promised him hot chocolate when we got home. And I will, I suspect, be reminding him of this kindness as I ease into my own incontinence in a few short decades’ time. If I’m lucky.
The Panic Years by Nell Frizzell (Bantam Press, ￡14.99) is out now. Pick up a copy from the Telegraph Bookshop.?
‘Shooting a football at your child’s face for money is never a great look’
James Brown and seven-year-old son Billy’s football games have turned into major competitions, with money involved
Credit: Geoff Pugh
Whichever way you look at it, shooting a football into your child’s face for money isn’t great, but I can assure you it was accidental and some good did come of it. My seven-year-old, Billy, loves playing one-on-one football in the back garden and recently we’ve invented a game he calls “money football”. If he saves my shot, I have to give him prize money; if I score, he pays me. He insists on always being goalkeeper.
To make it harder for myself, I shoot from a very difficult angle, whereby he’s covering most of the Samba goals simply by standing up. The first time we played I lost ￡4 in several small bets.
Earlier this month, he upped the stakes to multiple pounds per shot, so I had to really concentrate. Unfortunately, two intentionally low shots rose during flight – and were heading straight for his face.
They would have hit him if he hadn’t protected himself with, frankly, world-class level saves. But it’s a horrible moment when you realise you’ve clipped the ball too hard and it’s rocketing towards your child’s face.
The first time, he managed to sandwich his fingers between ball and forehead, stopped the goal, and fell to the floor stunned. When he realised he was OK he yelled “Ten pounds!” in delight as I lifted him up. The second time, I was chasing a ￡17 deficit and so we gambled ￡16. Knowing I could almost break even, I tried too hard to curl it and again it soared facewards.
This time he pulled his head back as he punched upwards in a fantastic cat-like self-preservation response. Brilliant save! He checked himself, looked to see where the ball was, then “Thirty-three pounds!”
Most importantly he looked more confident, like he realised things can happen to you without being as bad as you might fear.
I owe him ￡51 now and he’s continuing to improve his goalkeeping and financial skills. I, meanwhile, am calling the National Gambling Helpline.
Above Head Height: A Five a Side Life by James Brown (Quercus, ￡9.99) is out now. Pick up a copy from the Telegraph Bookshop.?
‘I missed my daughter’s baby-tooth milestone – not once but twice’
When Judith Woods scrambled with her daughter for a toy monkey, she couldn’t predict the consequences
Credit: Judith Woods
A baby’s first tooth. So special. I even bought a little box in which to store my eldest daughter’s first little white treasure so that, years later, I could tell her all about the moment it wobbled its way out of her mouth and how thrilled we were.
Christmas Eve 2007 and we were in Waitrose, buying the duck. I know, I know, but we just were.
I was frazzled. My husband was in an extravagant tizz about brandy butter. Our darling five-year-old was being such a horror I threatened to take away her chimpanzee, which she insisted on calling “Monkey”, annoying me further.
I can’t quite remember what she was doing, but it was evil. She did it again, maintaining eye contact. I wrenched the toy off her in self-righteous fury. Cue hysterical screams – and a fountain of blood. She had been gripping the thing between her teeth.
The manager came. The first-aid lady came. Of the tooth there was no sign. Just blood, spattered across a display of mugs.
“Is it your first? Are you coping?” some well-wisher asked. To my credit I didn’t slap her, just smiled tightly and ushered my sobbing child away. She apologised. Daddy made me apologise, too. The duck was too dry.
And so I kept the box for her little sister. Fast forward five years and I was driving up to Cambridge to visit my sister. Work called. I pulled into the services and ordered my 10-year-old to go and buy something – anything – that would silence her squawking sibling.
They set off and I rattled through what I needed to write while they returned and sat in the back of the car, each with an enormous bag of pick ’n’ mix.
Job done, I turned to see the big one looking aghast and the wee one clutching her mouth and looking very (very) surprised. She had lost her tooth on a fizzy blue sweet (the trifecta of middle-class nightmares). And she had swallowed it.
Still, it means I have a lovely keepsake for my grandchildren. That’s got to be worth something, hasn’t it?
‘The penny dropped. I’d forgotten the Mother’s Day tea’
Sarah Turner came to the school gates expect a mundane recollection of the past day, but found she’d missed something special
Credit: The Unmumsy Mum
After our third child was born, we found ourselves drowning under a deluge of reminders about school photos, World Book Day and nits. (If you’re thinking it sounds as though I’m preparing my defence for what’s to come, you would be right.)
One Friday afternoon in March 2018, I bundled the baby into his pram and walked to nursery to pick up my middle son (then aged three), my eldest son in tow. I was in good spirits, looking forward to the weekend, but my chipper mood soon evaporated when I asked Middle Son’s key worker if he’d had a good day.?
Yes, she told me, as she ducked underneath some bunting to greet us. He’d had a lovely day helping to make scones for the party tea which had “gone down a treat”. Scones for the party tea? There was momentary confusion before the penny dropped.
I’d missed the “Mother’s Day Treat” afternoon tea. The one I’d RSVP’d “Yes” to on an app I never quite understood. I pictured my darling boy staring at the door as the other mums filed in to taste the scones he’d helped make, the ones designed to thank us all for being such good mummies.
The guilt was quite honestly unbearable and after pretending that something urgent had come up, we made a swift exit and I tried not to cry all the way home. He’d been expecting me to be there and I’d let him down. What kind of a mother did that make me? Not one who deserved scones, that was for sure.?
Three years on and I’m happy to report that he has not been scarred for life by my no-show that day and doesn’t even remember it. He does remember the year after, though. I was the first one there.
The Unmumsy Mum A-Z : An Inexpert Guide to Parenting (Bantam Press, ￡14.99) is out now. Pick up a copy from the Telegraph Bookshop.?
‘That dismal day reminded me that it’s often OK to let kids take control’
Clover Stroud promised her children a weekend of bliss in Wales, but the holiday couldn’t had been further than that
Credit: John Lawrence
I should have trusted my children’s instincts when they said: “We just want to stay at the house today.” It was the fifth day of a week-long holiday, staying at a rented house in Wales.?
We had been through those familiar stages of the holiday we all recognise: the pressure of actually getting there and the worry that the house might not actually be what had been described, the entrancement of scattering our own clothes throughout the house and finding it fulfils every happy holiday fantasy, the energy of long beach days and the familiar, nostaligic feeling of sandy sheets and hair crisp with sea salt.
Everyone was tired and a bit sunburnt and because it was the fifth day my children – Dolly, 17, Evangeline, eight, Dash, seven, and Lester, four – all suddenly protested at the idea of another picnic. They wanted to stay in the rental house, play on the trampoline and watch YouTube.
Obviously, because I am bossy and outdoorsy, I refused, piling them mewing and protesting into the car, my voice raising as I promised it would be the best day of their lives and anyway I hadn’t paid all this money for them to sit inside.
I continued to tell them, in an increasingly hysterical voice, that they were definitely having fun. The promised farm shop I had planned to buy a picnic in was shut; lunch was crisps and garage sandwiches; the beach was dirty; the inflatable ring blew into the middle of the sea; I cut my foot on a piece of broken beer bottle; the ice-creams from the one beach shop were overpriced, and anyway Lester dropped his immediately, and screamed for 50 minutes, whereupon I admitted defeat, piled them all back into the car, trying to ignore their howling. Dash was sick.
As a parent, we have to control and manage so much, but that dismal day reminded me that sometimes it’s fine to say: “You know what kids, you take control.” Sometimes, you don’t have to create extraordinary memories they will treasure forever, but instead let them sit in darkened rooms lit only by the flicker of online Lego tutorials.
My Wild and Sleepless Nights: A Mother’s Story by Clover Stroud (Black Swan, ￡8.99) is out now. Pick up a copy at the Telegraph Bookshop.?
‘I’d rush bedtime stories so I could get downstairs and start drinking’
”I was as imperfect as imperfect parents come, and while I take no pride in my behaviour, I am no longer ashamed to admit it,” says Gordon
Credit: Paul Grover for the Telegraph
I started rehab for alcohol and drug addiction the day before my four-year-old daughter began Reception. In the pantheon of imperfect parenting, I think this must rank quite high.
I remember having to explain it to the teacher, a smiling, enthusiastic 24-year-old who herself seemed only just to have left school. “Hello, this is my precious daughter – if she seems bewildered, it’s not just because she’s starting school. It’s also because she has an alcoholic for a mother.” Or words to that effect.
We didn’t tell Edie much at the time, but children pick things up and while my alcoholism had mostly been secretive and had taken place after her bedtime, it had been reflected in my crankiness and flakiness the next morning. Often, I felt so bad that Daddy had to take her to nursery because Mummy had a headache and needed to stay in bed.
In the evening, I would rush through a story so I could get down to the kitchen for a gallon of booze. I was as imperfect as imperfect parents come, and while I take no pride in my behaviour, I am no longer ashamed to admit it.
It was accepting that I was a thoroughly imperfect parent (and an alcoholic) that has turned me into the half decent one I am today. My daughter knows all about my allergy to the demon drink, and we talk regularly about the reality of being a human. We also talk about how that entails making mistakes and feeling unpleasant things.
Soon, she will have known me for longer in recovery from alcoholism than she did drinking, and any memories she might have of me groggily refusing to get out of bed have long receded into the shadows.
But I never forget my failures as a mum, because they make me more present today. And I hope that when she feels imperfect – as we all do – she knows she has an expert on hand to talk to about it.
Glorious Rock Bottom by Bryony Gordon (Headline, ￡8.99) is out now. Pick up a copy from the Telegraph Bookshop.?
’Our kids have witnessed some absolute corkers of rows – but they’re unharmed’
Despite countless arguments, Nadia Sawalha has kept her marriage, and relationship with her children, strong
Credit: Clara Molden
Mark and I have been married for 19 years now. It’s a miracle we’ve lasted. Not because we don’t love each other deeply, but because we row like maniacs. What’s more, we have rowed in front of our kids on countless occasions.?
I’m sure there are health professionals who would deem this to be ‘bad parenting’ and in an ideal world it would probably have been far better if Mark and I had sat down with a nice cuppa and ‘talked through our differences’ in a civilised manner. The trouble is, I rarely feel civilised when I’m raging.?
Don’t get me wrong, over the years I’ve carried a huge amount?of guilt for the way we have shouted at each other with our girls in earshot. But our kids are 18 and 13 now – and unharmed. In fact, they find us hilarious and get quite misty-eyed with nostalgia when they recall some of our absolute corkers of rows.
They’ve both said to us that our rows were always so ridiculous that we just seemed ‘a bit silly’? – and that they also (most importantly) always knew we would make up. They’ve witnessed our highs and lows and they know that relationships can be messy, even the great ones.?
We have also tried to explain to them the ways either one of us was wrong in a row – to best illustrate that having rows isn’t about “winning” it’s about listening and potentially changing.
They know that, like all parents, at times we fail. Most importantly, though, is the fact that we always keep on trying.
’Confessions of a Modern Parent’ by?Nadia?Sawalha?and Mark Adderley is available here.?
’I managed to make 10 toddlers burst into tears, all at the same time’?
When Simon Mills upset his daughter he vowed, “right then, to zip it. Keep things to myself. Let a few more things go…not share so much”
Credit: Jeff Gilbert
“Daddy, when you said that, you really hurt my feelings.” My daughter Maddie was just four years old when she said this. Snivelled it, actually. It came at me from the backseat of the car, hit me cold in the neck like a bolt from a crossbow.?
It was the most heart-breaking sentence I’d ever heard. Her feelings, hurt by oafish, insensitive, uncaring me, by a stupid thing I’d said to her. Probably during the heat of an argument, about something trivial, inconsequential and forgettable.
My parenting skills were learned on the job. I didn’t read any manuals or take much advice. Not from the kids’ mother or my own parents. This meant that I was very good and very bad at it, probably in equal measures. So, things like this took me by surprise, annoyed me and suckerpunched me.?
Sure, I knew Maddie was growing up, that she was developing a personality, expressing new emotions, revealing a desire for some things and a definite dislike of others. But “feelings”? I thought this kind of complex, introspective stuff arrived with puberty or adulthood.
The shouting was over now, but in the rear view mirror I could see her red face looking out of the window, her big brown eyes, all puffy from belchy, salty, stoic tears. Hurting her feelings was the last thing I wanted to do.
As a parent, the father figure with the loudest voice in an already loud and overly vocal family, I vowed, right then, to zip it. Keep things to myself. Let a few more things go…not share so much. That pledge probably lasted for about a day.
It’s no surprise that both mother and father and children wanted to have their say. From the get go – well, as soon as the girls were out of nappies – I (we) decided to treat the girls with respect, like young adults. Ergo, we were always the kind of parents that discussed everything; problems aired and shared (and over shared).publically and vocally.?
Often at volume. Dinners, parties, holidays, were all en famille, encouraging, conversation and debate, opinions and ideas. We were a happy, shouty family. And that’s a good thing, right? Well, not really. Not all the time.
My personal showreel as a flawed parent, would feature some over-reactions and bouts of impatience. And the time I managed to make 10 toddlers (including my own) burst into tears, all at the same time, at a christmas party (I’d – jokingly, I thought – suggested that Christmas was cancelled and Santa wasn’t coming).
The good side? My children made me aware of my own dominant physicality (big) and my loud, scary voice. They encouraged me to be soft, not scary. I wasn’t always the best student or the finest mentor and yes, they watched and listened to my ex wife as we fought like wildcats but they saw us make up too.
They learned to have grown into confident, eloquent, fearlessly sociable young women, determined to be heard, unafraid of speaking up. Once, when Maddie was still small enough to be in her stroller, we walked past Dustin Hoffman in the street. (Dustin Hoffman! From the Graduate and Marathon Man). I was starstruck and silent. She leapt from her seat and yelled Dad! It’s the man from Meet the Fockers. Mr Hoffman melted.
My eldest was always a more thoughtful, measured character, who admonished me for being a carnivore. As a “sentient” adult with a “conscience” I should be kind to animals (ie not eat them). Sentient! She was eight years old.
Why we need to relate to our kids, not ‘parent’ them
By Philippa Perry
Any relationship will have its share of misunder-standings, misattunement and mistakes, but it is not so much these that cause damage. It is the lack of ’fessing up to them that damages; it is the denial that they were errors.
If we are bound up with the identities of “good mother” or “great dad”, there is a danger we won’t want to look at our mistakes. It’s not the ruptures that damage so much as their lack of repair.
We need to relate to our kids rather than “parent” them, which is a verb we tend to put value judgments on – and these judgments, whether positive or negative, interfere with the real business of being in real relationships with our children.
Children need their relationships with their parents to be a safe haven, so they feel that if they want or need to they can confide in us. It is important to realise that we need real dialogue – a to and fro of contact and connection with each child – and not a dynamic of “do-er” and “done-to”.
The problem with the verb “parenting” is that it makes you think that the roles should be parent as do-er and child as done-to. None of us want to be moulded as though we are clay; we would rather have a supportive environment where we can blossom like the flowers we were meant to be. The right soil for this blossoming is supportive relationships; ones that don’t get in our way – whatever age we are.
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Phillipa Perry (Penguin Life, ￡9.99) is out now. Pick up a copy from the Telegraph Bookshop.?
Lost your temper with a child? Parenting experts reveal what to do next?
Scolding, finger pointing and shouting might seem good at the time, but parenting experts have other ideas
Credit: Getty Images
? Press pause
“It’s human nature to lose it on occasion and when we do it’s usually because we have unrealistic expectations about what our children should be doing,” says Elaine Halligan, director of the Parent Practice. “It’s about pressing a pause button and being less reactive in the moment.”
? Own your mistakes
“You should model that it’s alright for us as adults to make mistakes and when we do we have to own those and make a repair,” says Halligan. “Don’t excuse your behaviour, don’t justify yourself, don’t blame your child for you blowing up.”
? How to apologise?
“It’s never too late to say sorry and admit you got things wrong,” says Reith. “All you need to do is to apologise for your behaviour. Absolutely avoid justifying yourself by telling your child what they did that made you angry.”
? Avoid eruptions
We have all lost our rag with a child, but it can be avoided. “When you feel that anger brewing in yourself, do whatever you can to head it off before you even get to an explosion,” says Judy Reith, parent coach and founder of Parenting People.?
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