Despite our best intentions, all parents make mistakes, act inconsistently, and generally fall short of our goals. But we can also model asking for forgiveness.
Our children absorb not only our words but also our behavior as they attempt to understand what it means to live a moral and ethical life. They see and hear what we believe from the answers we give them and they internalize our actions as evidence of our values.
This is already a tall order for most parents, but for Unitarian Universalists—who pride ourselves in being anti-racist/anti-oppression as well as environmental activists who are standing on the side of love and believing in the inherent worth and dignity of all people—it can be difficult if not impossible to always live up to our ideals.
Despite our best intentions, we all make mistakes, act inconsistently, and generally fall short of our overall goals of parenting. There are days when we are tired, irritable, sick, or just plain cranky, and we may not be respectful, just, honest, or particularly careful about what our behavior is teaching our children. This is only to be expected. We are human, after all. We may carry some spark of the divine and the potential to accomplish great things, but we also have moments when it just doesn’t work.
Children understand this and are more than willing to forgive—particularly if we recognize our transgressions, explain how we wish it hadn’t happened, and perhaps even share what we will do to make it right. In fact, owning up to our mistakes is a great way to teach children that it’s okay to not be perfect and that we all make mistakes—including the people they look up to.
We can use these imperfect parenting moments as an opportunity to teach our children valuable lessons about how at times we all fall short of the ideal. None of us is without fault, nor is the world we inhabit. Every day carries with it the possibility and the opportunity for us to grow, improve ourselves, and come to terms with imperfection. Instead of glossing over our mistakes, we can instead celebrate them as opportunities for learning and growing. This not only teaches our children that it’s okay for them to make mistakes, but it teaches them what they should do to make things right when they do mess up. They also can seek forgiveness, make it up to the person who’s been wronged, or promise to do better next time.
The Jewish faith tradition has the important yearly ritual of examining past deeds and asking forgiveness as part of their High Holy Days, culminating with Yom Kippur. Annually, the slate is wiped clean and they are able to begin again fresh without the burdens of last year’s misdeeds to affect their attempts to do good in the world. What a wonderful gift this ritual gives to them, this chance to start over with the idea of doing better next time.
Unitarian Universalists could also use a cleansing ritual like this, to help us come to acceptance of how we regularly fall short of the high ideals we have established for ourselves. Then we can begin anew and do better.
Maybe that’s what New Years’ resolutions should be about.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).
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