“Let’s just try to have a nice family dinner.”
“We can all just try to get along here at the table.”
Sounds like something you’d expect parents of four young kids to say when they were all out to eat after church and the kids were being wild. Right?
Nope. That was our oldest, Titus, trying to get Lindy and I to stop disagreeing (let’s not call it fighting) at the table over dinner.
Lindy had a handful of errands she’d wanted to run that morning but wasn’t able to because, you know, kids. I wanted to spend the night on the couch watching Cars with my boys, but instead I’m one town over driving laps in the Michael’s parking lot. Lindy wanted to eat at Chick-fil-a, but instead I dragged us all to a place specializing in greasy cheeseburgers. I paid for a Very Berry Strawberry shake and it never showed up.
It was kind of a long day, we were both pretty exhausted, and neither one of us was doing a great job listening to the other while we each made our case for why it was ok for us to feel the way we were.
And there was Titus trying to get his mom and dad to stop arguing.
I’m reading a book called Released from Shame by Sandra Wilson right now trying to help untangle some of the knots of confusion and lies in my life to help me move forward as a better man, husband, and father.
Chapter 3, Unhealthy Families, starts out with these words:
It has been said that an unexamined life is not worth living. It might also be hazardous to your health and to the health of those closest to you. Especially as you loyally and thoughtlessly repeat painful patterns learned in childhood.
Here’s the reality – no family is perfect. And none of us were born in to two families so we could compare healthy vs. unhealthy parenting – we just have our parents and the ways of thinking we developed as they raised us. So it’s hard for us to compare the differences between how we act and think and how a healthier version of ourselves would act and think.
Lindy and I are almost 8 years into our parenting journey and the deeper we get in to it the more respect I have for my parents because this stuff is just hard and no one knows what they’re doing. Wilson writes that:
“healthy families are not problem-free families. What distinguishes healthy from unhealthy families is how they handle the inevitable problems they encounter.”
Justin two or three years ago would not only be arguing with his wife over dinner, he’d be overwhelmed by shame in the middle of the conflict and that feeling would translate to anger. Justin today was able to look at Titus and say “Thank you, buddy. You’re right, but we need to figure this out right now.” Or something like that.
Wilson continues to say
“parents in poorly functioning families deny problems and emotional pain. To preserve the illusion that the family is perfect, these parents expend their energy on appearance management instead of problem solving.”
Man, that punches me in the face. Titus’ words trying to silence our conflict at the table were basically a direct reflection of my soul. I want everyone in our family to happily suck down their favorite flavor of milkshake over a super fun dinner and I want to take a photo of it so we can share it on Instagram and preserve the illusion that our family is perfect.
And I can convince myself this is the right thing to do – that this is healthy parenting. My inner monologue says “the most important thing for your kids is for them to feel safe in this family, this conflict is going to screw them up.”
But my inner monologue is wrong. My kids need to know that life isn’t easy, they need to see Lindy and I acknowledge our emotional pain and problems, they need to see us expend our energy on problem solving. Our children need to see that our family isn’t perfect – and that is ok.
I’m not ignoring my children’s emotional needs by arguing with their mom in front of them. I’m ignoring their emotional needs by ignoring the conflict in front of them.
My kids will be better off in a family that admits Daddy can be a jerk to Mommy sometimes, when they see that you don’t have to be perfect parents to be good parents, and when the things their parents ignore are unrealistic expectations, not emotional conflict.
We sometimes fight in front of our kids, and I’m ok with.