As parents, it is important that we learn from the mistakes we make. Of course, it’s better (or at least less painful) to learn from someone else’s mistakes rather than our own, but life doesn’t always afford us that opportunity.

As we mentor and talk with adoptive and foster families, Amy and I try to make a point to talk openly and honestly about the mistakes we have made along the way with the hope that others will learn from them, even as we have. The following story, included in Chapter 6 of Created To Connect: A Christian’s Guide to The Connected Child, illustrates well how we sometimes miss the mark as parents. But it also reveals the importance of being willing to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes as well as repair them learn in order to re-connect with our children. 

For a refresher on the IDEAL response and how it can be used to effectively correct while still helping you stay connected, be sure to watch The IDEAL Response for Parents.

A Less Than IDEAL Response

The thought of an outdoor family photo strikes fear in the hearts of most parents with young children. This experience can leave even the best parents feeling utterly powerless against both the weather and their children’s behavior. The stress starts even before picture day arrives. Finding coordinated outfits and keeping everyone’s hair perfectly combed is a challenge all its own. This humbling and expensive rite of passage leaves many parents wishing for one thing above all else: Please Lord, let them smile!

Let’s face it, situations like this can bring out the worst not only in our children, but also in us as parents. This was the case during what will certainly be known for all time as the Monroe Family Picture Fiasco of 2009. But from the mess of our poor handling of the situation came a real opportunity for better understanding and a chance to learn from our mistakes.

Two Wrongs Won’t Make It Right

Everything was set for the early morning photo session at a local park and everyone looked “picture perfect.” The photographer started with the kids, positioning all four (ranging in age from five to nine years old) on a white rock in front of the beautiful waterfall. She backed away and lifted the camera to her eye … and then it all began to fall apart.

Carter, five-years-old at the time, decided that he simply was not going to smile. There was no real reason that we could tell, he just wasn’t going to. The photographer started with the old standby of silly faces. But it was to no avail. Then Mom and Dad got in on the act with a few tickles that quickly led to begging and pleading — but still no smile. In fact, at that point Carter started to show more than a little attitude, as in, “I’m not smiling and you can’t make me.” And that’s when we began to make a real mess of things.

Despite our sincere desire to be good parents we made some major mistakes in dealing with Carter’s behavior. Looking back, we were primarily focused on wanting our kids to behave, not to mention wanting a good family photo. As a result, we failed to see his misbehavior as an opportunity for teaching and connection. We started by using bribes, from promising candy to going swimming later that day, and when that approach didn’t work we immediately moved to threats. The more he refused to cooperate, the more we threatened him. The more we threatened him, the more he refused to cooperate. We were in a battle and we weren’t about to lose — not to a five year old. After all, we’re the boss, right?

As the battle continued to escalate, Carter eventually began crying, which needless to say, doesn’t portray the “happy family” we wanted everyone to see in our photos. Frustrated and embarrassed, it was time to pull out the “big guns.” We took Carter aside and threatened to take away every privilege and ounce of possible fun he could imagine — for the rest of his life — if he did not stop crying and start cooperating by smiling NOW!

These threats were accompanied by an onslaught of words, questions and accusations in increasingly louder and frustrated tones: “What is wrong with you?” “You are going to ruin this photo!” “We are wasting our money!” and “Why do you always do this?” Those are just a few of the loving and kind things we said to him in our own fit of frustration. But again, it was to no avail. The more we vented and raised our voices, the more Carter fell apart. By the end he was so upset that he couldn’t have smiled even if he had wanted to.

Our missteps along the way were too numerous to count; our approach was anything but ideal. We tried all of the obvious tactics but they led us nowhere. To make things worse, we lost sight of what was most important. Our goal should not have been good behavior; our goal should have been (and must always be) to deepen the connection between our child and us. Even, maybe especially, when they frustrate us the most. That connection can then serve as the foundation that helps our kids make the right choices and, when they fail to, allows us to help them get back on track. Instead, we lost our focus and allowed our frustration to keep us from connecting with Carter and him with us.

Making Things Right

Later that day we discovered, much to our shame, that Carter wasn’t feeling well. He was diagnosed the next day with a major sinus infection, which is a chronic condition for him and one of several legacies of the “hard places” from which he comes. While this certainly does not excuse his misbehavior and refusal to cooperate, it does highlight the need to better understand and appreciate the complex array of factors and influences that are always present with our children. Had we chosen to handle the situation differently by spending time trying to talk (and listen) to Carter about why he wasn’t cooperating and less time bribing, threatening and venting our frustrations, he likely would have told us he wasn’t feeling well and we could have given him a big hug and talked with him about how we could help him feel better. If we had taken the time to respond to Carter in an IDEAL way, seeking to connect even as we corrected, we likely could have avoided a very frustrating situation for all of us.

Back home, after all of the apologies were made (including many from us to all of the kids) and accepted and after everyone had calmed down (including Dad, who spent more than a few minutes in the “think it over” chair himself), we were able to talk about the Monroe Family Picture Fiasco of 2009 and even have a few laughs. As things turned out, the photos weren’t all that bad. To our surprise, the photographer somehow managed to sneak a couple of great shots of Carter smiling somewhere along the way! And in the end, despite our less than ideal handling of the situation, Mom and Dad learned some valuable lessons, and we all grew a little closer together as a family.