When someone joins our staff, after the rousing welcome, we talk about deadlines, details and advice. "Above all. You need to get it right and write it well." (Oh, and yes, avoid cliches like the plague.)
I usually close by saying, "And remember, you will screw up. We all do. It is inevitable."
OK, maybe I’m not an inspirational leader. It’s not what I want to say, but it is what I have to say.
Let’s face it. Being perfect isn’t going to happen. I would adore opening the magazine just one month and not sounding like Homer Simpson, screaming out "D’oh!" after finding some atrocity we missed while editing. From the simplest—a misplaced comma—to the most inexcusable—a factual error—each hits hard. But we are human.
So, I tell our newbie, "The key is to have a system in place that will minimize the mistakes. The minute we discover the mistake, we print a correction to say it out loud and take responsibility. And we apologize. ‘Chicago Parent regrets the error.’ "
It’s the best we can do. We all make mistakes.
The other night as I was falling asleep I began thinking about all my work mistakes. It’s something I do each night as a good Catholic girl. I conjure a list of my iniquities and they parade through my head as I drift off. Some people count sheep; I count my screw-ups. And as I did so, some wise cracker in my head decided to teach me a lesson and juxtapose the work screw-ups to my parenting mistakes.
Comma versus possible coma?
Thinking of my parenting mistakes usually leads me down the what-if path or to a does-the-end-justify-the-means tangent. As in the other day, when my younger boy was standing under the garage door as it was coming down and I screamed at the top of my lungs, "Move your ass!" He moved and was not hurt—both good things. But altogether not a very proud parenting moment. Couldn’t I have found another way to achieve my means without screaming about his end?
And then, my thoughts went beyond my swearing and yelling, to: What if he hadn’t moved? What if I had been distracted, looking for my keys? What if he had been hurt and knocked into a coma?
Why can’t they just be fitted with a protective gauze suit until they turn 21? Or 41?
Then, my mind wandered again.
Mind you, while I have been accused of having adult ADD, I’ve never been diagnosed.
Anyway, I thought about an argument I had the other day with my older boy.
Through much back and forth about something that really was not important, he finally explained to me that he was worried. The last four months, I have been more than a bit off. My reactions, he said, have been unpredictable.
"In the past, Mom, when you were wrong or you were childish, you would see it and admit it right away. Lately, you haven’t."
I bristled. A move. A separation. A reestablishment of normalcy for our reconstituted family. Work demands. Of course I am OFF! Are you blind? Don’t you know I have an excuse?
But I held my tongue. He was right.
For a child—and no matter how tall he is, my baby boy is still a child—excuses don’t matter. He was identifying a problem. And you can’t just fix a parenting mistake with a correction, can you?
"Kids grow to expect stable and predictable behavior from parents," says Theresa Thorkildsen, who is with the departments of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She teaches teachers and researches kids. "So, if that behavior changes, it is very disruptive to the kid."
But Thorkildsen says every family goes through "surprising life events."
In our case it’s moving and divorce. It’s rough but not as surprising and extreme as, say, the families who have been through Hurricane Katrina.
It is hard getting through these things, Thorkildsen says, and allowances must be made. Through these patches, both parents and kids have to bend and give. Just as we have to do as our children develop and change. But parents must also understand that as children change, so does our fundamental style of parenting.
Unilateral authority is top-down ordering and is necessary when children are little. "Do not cross the street without me." No choice.
But as they get older, that won’t work.
Parents move to cooperative negotiations. "It’s a two-way conversation," says Thorkildsen.
That means the good, the bad and the ugly are open for discussion. "It’s harder. And not every parent is open to hearing about their faults."
Boy, is that right.
"The strategy is to let children discuss where they see the parent-child relationship is going—faults and all," Thorkildsen says. "The trick is not to be crushed or offended by what you hear. Get the problems out. Discuss them.
"Parents should explain what they were trying to accomplish and if appropriate, apologize," she says.
And the key to the surprising life events is once you are through it, not to use it as a lifelong excuse.
Walking the dog the other night with my boy, I decided to bring it all up when we were not angry.
We discussed. He named it. I explained it. Then, I apologized.
It was the best I could do. I made a mistake. It needed a correction. This parent regrets the error.
"Thanks Mom. That’s what I would have expected you to do before. We all make mistakes."