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Parenting is tough. And it can be even tougher when you’re raising kids with learning and thinking differences. When we make mistakes as parents, it’s important to know we’re not alone. And that we’re all learning as we go. 

In this episode of the In It podcast, hosts Rachel Bozek and Gretchen Vierstra share listener stories of parenting “fails” — plus their own stories. Tune in to hear about times when we lost our patience, regretted our words, or had a bad parenting moment in public. These stories may make you laugh, cringe, or even cry. But no matter what, we hope they’ll make you feel “in it” with other families. 

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Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs…

Rachel: …the ups and downs…

Gretchen: …of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer, and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today, we're putting our whole selves out there, along with a lot of you who wrote in or left us voice messages to say, "You know what, I mess up sometimes."

Gretchen: Yep. All of us mess up sometimes. And that is human and forgivable and completely OK.

Rachel: So, pour yourself a cup of coffee, tea, or your beverage of choice, and let's get into some parenting fails.

Gretchen:So, Rachel, I think we're in agreement that it's only fair that we share some of our own fails before we turn it over to our listeners. So, do you have one you'd like to share to start us off?

Rachel: I suppose. So, I know we're a little tired of COVID talk, but I'm going to bring it back to kind of the early days. This was summer of 2020, and my mom was down at the Jersey Shore and basically, I really wanted to go. And we decided, you know, we were going to give it a go and mask up in the condo and just try to make it work.

And at the time, my daughter was 7. And throughout the weekend, I really put it on her, like my concerns and my anxieties about being out in this kind of unknown territory that, you know, is COVID life. And everything she touched, and everything she did I would just like kind of freaked out. And the whole weekend really came to a head at one point when we were at the beach and she found in the sand a pair of handcuffs...

Gretchen: Oh, my gosh.

Rachel: I mean, I can just stop there.

Gretchen: Like handcuffs?

Rachel: Like actual handcuffs, like actual police handcuffs. I don't know. I'm guessing. I didn't, like, inspect them, which part of the problem is that I was afraid to touch anything. And then I'm like, "Oh, my God, my kid just picked up handcuffs on the beach," and I totally overreacted. And I was like, "You can't have those! Put those down!" And so, she got up and took off. So, now there's this big scene, I'm chasing her on the beach. I grab the handcuffs away from her in a plastic bag, throw it in the garbage. I walk away, I turn around. She is pulling herself up on the garbage can.

And that's one more point where I pretty much lost my mind. It was just like all too much. We ended up leaving early. And really, I mean, there were a lot of mini fails in there, but the real fail was that we went. I just — I wasn't ready to go anywhere yet, and I didn't recognize that. And I just completely took all of that out on her the whole weekend.

Gretchen: Mm-hmm. Well, I think listening to yourself sometimes, like, you forget, right? I think that is, that can be a parenting fail. Like realizing like you're pushing yourself or your kids to the brink. And that kind of relates to one that I'd like to share when I should have listened to my kid and didn't.

So, years ago, my kids were probably like preschool or maybe kindergarten. You know, I'm a pretty avid runner, and I was going to run this 10K, this trail race. And that happened to have before the race a little pre-race for kids to do, which was just run across this field. And as a runner, I was like, "Yes, my kids have to do this. This sounds amazing." And at first, they were like "Yeah, yeah, I'll run like, Mommy! It sounds good!"

But then when we got there and they put on a little number, my older daughter was really not into it. And she saw the crowd and kind of was like, "No, no, I don't want to do this." And I was like, "No, it'll be fun. Of course, you should do it." And my younger one was a little more like, "Oh, I'll still do it, OK."

So, I convinced my older that she should still do it. What about if you held hands with your sister and ran across the field together? Well, think about it. Two little kids with not a lot of coordination running across a field of other kids holding hands. The minute the gun went off, two seconds in, they're on the ground flat. And I think because one had run a little faster and so she dragged the other behind her a little bit, and then the other one ends up on the ground.

And the clincher of this whole thing is that this field was wet. And not only was it wet, but the park geese had pooped all over it. So, when they got up crying, they had geese poop all over their shirts. They were all wet. And I was like running in there to save them out of there. And immediately I was just like, "I am the worst mother ever. Why did I do this?"

And I think I should have listened to my daughter and just said, "OK, you don't have to run this little thing." But it was all about what I wanted at the moment, because I thought it would be a great experience for them. I have now learned to really like pause a little bit and say like, "Am I doing this for them or am I doing this for me?"

Rachel: Yes. And that was totally mine too. Like, she wasn't like, "Hey, let's go to the beach for the weekend."

Gretchen: Yeah.

Rachel: That was an itch I needed to scratch.

Gretchen: Yeah. So, let's hear from some of our listeners now. Here's a voice memo we got from a mom named Lisa.

Lisa: One specific incident that really stands out in my mind as a fail with my son, who has ADHD and a lot of learning issues as well as behavioral problems, was when he was in the fourth grade. We were driving to a behavioral therapist appointment. When we pulled into the parking lot, he refuses to get out of the car. And I'm trying to coerce him, calmly at first, and he immediately starts a colossal meltdown and screaming and won't get out of the car.

And I felt myself getting hotter and hotter and angrier and angrier because I just needed him to get inside. And in my mind, I wanted to just grab him and pull him out of the car. And of course, I wouldn't do that. But that was the instinct that I had. And right as I'm feeling that, I see the therapist walk outside because he could hear the chaos coming from our car. And he's just watching and almost observing. And I think he was observing my son. But I felt like he was observing how I handled the situation.

And I was just angry, and I started getting louder and more frustrated. And I, I just couldn't do anything else. I just burst into tears. I felt so defeated. And immediately the therapist walks down and talks to Jack in a very, very respectful way, out of the car and up into his office. And I just felt like such a failure that I wasn't able to keep my composure and do it the way the therapist had done it. I failed completely.

And then I also felt like a fool because I had just completely lost control and I ended up in tears myself. It was a horrible feeling and it just sat with me. It sat with me for a really long time, and it's something that bothers me, and I wish that I would have been able to handle that situation better.

Gretchen: Oh, boy. There is something about how embarrassing it can feel when you have a bad moment in front of somebody else. You know, whether or not they are actually judging you, it can just be so hard. Oh, that's a tough one.

Rachel: I will throw in that something like that happened to me in a pharmacy parking lot. I was having a lot of trouble getting my child into the car seat and it was just like, "No, no." And she was probably like 2 or 3 at the time. And an onlooker just came up to me out of nowhere and was like, "You're the boss. You're the boss here." And I was like, already about to cry, I just, I completely understand. Not that that's what happened here to Lisa, but it's just that feeling like, oh, there's people watching. It's the worst.

Gretchen: It is.

Rachel: I totally feel for you, Lisa. So, we got another response from a listener that's similar in that it has to do with worrying about what other people think. But there's kind of a twist at the end. So this is an email that we got from Theresa. Here's what she writes:

[Theresa:]We have a spirited and active son who's always been adventurous. I remember us being really anxious and controlling at professional sports games, expecting him to be able to sit and watch games for hours and not play or climb on the bleachers. There was the fear of falling, but also our discomfort at the idea of our family disturbing others who were focusing on the game.

I wish we had been a little looser in those situations. It took the joy out of some of those events. It also sent a message that being high-energy and spirited wasn't a good thing. When we go to games now, I'm aware of all the little kids horsing around and having a great time, and it makes me a little wistful. Over time, we learned to loosen up and celebrate who he is more, and he has fond memories of those events. But I wish I knew then what I know now.

Gretchen: You know, again, that story reminds me, right? We're always so worried about what others are thinking about us sometimes that we don't think about ourselves or our kids. And it takes practice for us to figure that out, I think, over time.

So, here's a voice memo we got from a dad named Michael. He told us he has a 7-year-old daughter with a few different learning and thinking differences that they're still trying to untangle.

Michael: We're still sort of figuring out how to classify them. She's going through a lot of assessments. And one of the ways it manifests is that she's very resistant to working on it, to practicing. And of course, that's the only way she'll get better at writing and reading, and drawing. But she doesn't like to do it. And so, we try to find creative ways to get her to do that.

So, not too long ago, my wife was really working hard to be kind and to say, "Look, we need to practice. Here's all the ways we could practice our writing." And she kept making suggestions and she kept asking my daughter for suggestions. And not only was my daughter not agreeing to anything, everything wasn't the right thing, but she wasn't at all helpful in terms of suggesting what she might like to do. And she was so resistant, and I could hear my wife's tone changing as she got a little more upset. And then I just heard my wife sort of lose it and start to cry.

And I just ran in there and I said, "What's wrong with you?" My daughter, I was so mad. "What's wrong with you? How could you let your mother; you can't see how upset you're making her? Why can't you just help her?" And I sort of yelled at her and I slammed the door and I left her in there. And then, of course, she started crying. And my wife was crying. And I felt terrible. I think that was a huge fail as a parent. And it's something I'll always remember and try to avoid in future.

Rachel: Augh, that's a real oof! I have been there on both sides of that. And, you know, so many of these so-called fails have to do with losing our patience and getting mad and not reacting the way we want to. And the thing is, so often we know we're getting frustrated at our child for something that they can't help, although we might not realize it at the time. And that's also what happened with Tanisha.

Tanisha: Hello, my name is Tanisha and we're at my house, a game night with family and friends. And after dinner, I had my son do the dishes. But for him, dishes thing consists of bowls, cups, and silverware. I went on to say, "Malachi, dishes include everything," and he didn't get it. So, we both got frustrated.

The same thing happened the following morning, where I said, "You going to help me do the clothes, you fold. Malachi then felt towels, washcloths, socks, and underclothes aren't part of clothes. And I said, "Malachi, it's all considered clothes when you're doing laundry." And he goes, "Mommy, if you want me to do something, you need to be specific." We went back and forth, and then eventually I said, "I'm not doing this with you," because we were both frustrated.

And when I spoke to his doctor, his doctor say, "You have to do things differently." Needless to say, I've learned slowly but surely, and still Malachi doesn't consider dishes silverware, the cups, and bowls. So, we laugh about it, him and I now.

Rachel: Oh, my gosh, I totally get that. I have two children who take things very literally, and I can totally imagine them only washing the plates if I said, "Do the dishes." I'm going to try that, though, and see if they'll do the dishes or the plates even. But my husband and I have had to learn how to be very explicit and specific in our instructions. And that's what it sounds like Malachi's doctor told Tanisha to do.

Gretchen: And I love that she and her son were able to laugh about this. Laughter really does go a long way in getting through the hard stuff.

OK, Rachel, here's one from Joe, a dad who, like Tanisha, also had to make some adjustments so his kid could thrive.

Joe: I'm a single parent, and I adopted my son out of foster care, and I adopted him when he was 9 going on 10. And at that time, I was able to identify that he had trouble with math and organization, impulsivity, ADHD, and a couple other triggers. So, when I was looking through his planner or at least his folder in elementary school, it was just an absolute mess. So, I figured, all right, well, with my anal retentiveness, I would be able to help him get organized and in structure and providing him with a variety of ways of how to organize his papers.

And so, one evening after dinner, we were organizing his papers, and I was just trying to help him. I said, "OK, you put this in this binder, you put this over here, you create a to-do list, a checklist," and so, it pretty much escalated into him crying and having a fit. And I couldn't understand why with all this organization that I'm providing him, why isn't he able to benefit and try to just settle on down? Well, silly me. After having a conversation with his teacher, they really shared with me I need to give him more control. And obviously, when you try to help, you actually don't help. You create more of a problem.

So, eventually, I was able to be a little bit more patient with myself and take more time to give him control for him to better learn how to organize himself. And you know, he's doing much, much better. I think I'm doing much, much better, because it does take a team approach and just rely on those experts that are in your wheelhouse and those are the teachers that really help.

Gretchen: It takes a village.

Rachel: Yes. And not every kid loves the organizational stuff that we do.

Gretchen: I know.

Rachel: So, OK, we're going to share one more. And this is an email we got from Laurie. This one really takes me back to the early days of trying to be a perfect mom or just do it right. And I think that's something you can only sustain for so long. Do you want to read it, Gretchen?

Gretchen: Sure. Here's what she wrote in:

[Laurie:] I had planned the perfect birthday party for our daughter's second birthday. The day started with having to rush in order to pick up the cake from the bakery, which was out of candles. I had to travel to another store for the purchase, which placed me running behind schedule. The balloons that we were blowing up must have been defective because most of them popped during the process. Several of the children invited were irritable and fussy and difficult to deal with.

One gift was a small wading pool that was filled with water for the children to splash in. Our daughter managed to drop a little surprise while playing in the pool. At the same time this happened, another child squealed with delight, "A Tootsie Roll!" as he was reaching to grab it. Horrified that all of this, I quickly burst into tears of embarrassment and exhaustion from all of my efforts and told my husband that he could end the party and tend to our daughter for a while. And I retreated to our bedroom to finish crying and deal with my overwhelming sadness at my failed attempt at a perfect birthday party.

Rachel: Oh, wow. That's hard.

Gretchen: So hard.

Rachel: You know, I mean, I think you can't see this in the moment, but these end up being like amazing memories that you can go back and totally laugh about. But when it's happening, it is just the worst.

Gretchen: It is. It is. And the birthday party thing, I remember planning out a tea party for one of my daughters and having all of these little crafting things that I thought were going to occupy two hours, and literally in 10 minutes it was all over. Tea was spilled and I was like, "What do I do now until the parents come to pick up their kids?"

Rachel: Best laid plans.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Gretchen: All of these stories are reminding me that it's so important for us to be kind to ourselves. We need to remember that no one is getting this parenting thing right all of the time. And I know on this show, we obviously give lots of parenting advice. And I just want you all to know that no one's doing it all of the time. Like even the people who give the advice, right, say, "Yeah, this is my advice, but do I do it at home all the time? No." This is tough stuff. And so, we just need to remember that it's OK to make mistakes.

Rachel: That's absolutely true. And, you know, to add to that, Gretchen, the idea that any of these emails and voicemails that we got from people are unique is just not the case. You know, everything that we heard and read, including ones that weren't part of this episode, are things that have happened to at least one of us here at the show. And in general, these kinds of things happen to so many people all the time. But when it's happening, you feel like you're the only one in the universe...

Gretchen: Right.

Rachel: ...you know that is going through that. I think that's an important thing for people to remember and for me to remember. And another thing that came to mind while we were going through all of these is the idea of apologizing and repairing and acknowledging what has happened with your child.

You can say, "You know, I'm sorry that that happened and I'm going to work on that." And we talked about that a little bit when we had Sarah Greenberg on in our couples episode. and also with Kristin Carothers when we talked about discipline That can go a really long way with your child and also for yourself.

Gretchen: Totally. So, thank you to all of you who wrote in or called in to share your stories with us.

Gretchen: And you definitely made us feel less alone. So, thank you.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Gretchen: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts or maybe to share one of your parenting fails. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about tough parenting moments, we've got a lot of that. We'll add some episode links in the show notes.

Gretchen: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Gretchen: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being in it with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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