What to Do When Your Child Embarrasses You
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
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If you haven’t yet been mortified by something your child says or does, just wait. It will happen.
Your child might throw a fit in the grocery store, even, perhaps, crashing a child-size cart into an end-of-aisle display, sending boxes of mac-n-cheese tumbling to the floor… as was recounted to me just this past weekend.
Your child might pipe up in front of an entire assembled group with a very vulgar turn of phrase he heard you use once – just once – and you feel all the adult eyes in the room searching for you as you try to become invisible.
Your child might make her entrance at Thanksgiving dinner wearing something… unusual… that she realizes you’d never approve, and your own mother glares at you from across the room, letting you know you’ll hear about how you’re raising your daughter as soon as dessert is done.
What do you do? How can you keep this sort of thing from happening?
Last question first: you can’t. You cannot keep your child from embarrassing you for two very good reasons. First, children realize early what buttons to push and they become masterful at pushing those, even seemingly in all innocence. We telegraph to our children what makes us most uncomfortable so that the source of our discomfort lodges in their heads. Like some intergenerational Freudian slip, what bothers us most is what our children will say or do.
Second, we are acutely vulnerable to being embarrassed by our kids because we can’t get past the idea that our children represent us like little mini-billboards. We think that whatever our children do – the great things and the not-so-great things – sum up our skill as parents, our intelligence, our values, our worth. Try as we might, it’s hard to shake the feeling that our children are us and when they do something embarrassing, it’s as if we’d done it ourselves.
So what do we do?
The best and most important thing you can do is uncouple your own ego from your child’s. You and she really are two completely different people and what she chooses to do is her own decision, not yours. Feel free to be amused and amazed by your child but never believe you must feel embarrassed by her.
Realize that child-rearing is an ongoing, long-term project marked by great gains and unexpected setbacks. Yes, it’s your job to raise up your child in the way he should go but it’s unrealistic to think this is accomplished by magic, overnight. We all are a work-in-progress, children and parents too.
Notice that the result of this child-rearing process, if you do things right, will not be a clone of yourself. You child is now and will become in the future a unique, independent person who will retain her ability to delight and exasperate you. Any person who is totally predictable and completely under the control of her ever-more-aging-and-set-in-their-ways parents is a person who has lost the best part of herself. You do not wish this fate for your child. Embrace her ability to be her own amazing self even if sometimes she makes you cringe.
And that person under control of others? You don’t want that for yourself either. Do not take your cues about when to be embarrassed from others who want to dictate your emotional state. Let them take cues from you! Laugh when your kid does something outrageous. Go ahead and roll your eyes and share a private oh-my! with the person next to you. If others see that you’re not bothered, they will be less bothered too and will be more able to put things into perspective.
It’s all about perspective. Gaining the right perspective on a child’s behavior makes both you and him happier.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.