I made a parenting mistake this weekend. And my daughter called me on it.
We were at my daughter’s very early morning, very cold soccer game. She was struggling with it being her first game back after several weeks off for an injury. The field was wet, and the ball was skipping. She went to kick the ball right in front of where I was sitting on the sidelines. She missed. And I yelled her name in a harsh tone of voice.
My daughter was already frustrated because she wasn’t playing as well as she wanted to. Her ankle hurt. And her mom expressed frustration with her play.
I try really hard not to be an overbearing sports parent. I try to tell my girls I love watching them play no matter how they play. I try not to overanalyze their games. We try to let sports be just something else that they do — not the thing that defines their worth.
But on Saturday morning, I got caught up in the game. I got caught up in my daughter’s concern about her playing and her frustration with her ankle. I yelled, and she heard me.
When she came off the field, she was in tears. She was upset that her ankle still hurt. She was upset that she hadn’t played well. But the thing that made it all worse was that I had yelled at her. “You sounded more mad than my coach was,” she said.
That’s when I knew I’d blown it. That’s when I knew that I’d taken one step back on this parenting journey that is so often a constant dance of two steps forward and one step back.
You see, my job as a parent is to be there. It’s to pick my kids up when they fall. It’s to let them know that they are loved no matter what. It’s to have their backs all the time.
Because when my kids come off the field after a bad game or home from school after a frustrating day, they need to know that I love them not because of how they played or what grade they got on their test but because of who they are. They need to know that there’s one place in this world that’s safe, at least one person in this world who loves them no matter how they perform.
It’s easy to get caught up in our kids’ sports or artistic endeavors. It’s easy to focus on performance over character. It’s easy to crush our kids’ spirits because we forget that what they do on the sports field, the dance floor or at school isn’t a reflection of their worth.
When we parents become so caught up in our kids’ performances that we forget the performance has nothing to do with our child’s worth, we diminish who our kids are. When we focus only on performance, we reduce our kids to numbers and deeds. We lose sight of their personality and the plans that God has for them.
Simple words that we utter without thinking can make our kids think that we care more about their performance than we do about them as people, so we have to be careful. We have to think about what we say. We have to let our kids know we care more about them than we care about their performance. Because when we give the impression that we only love them when they perform well, we give our kids the impression that love is conditional. We turn love into something that has to be earned.
And when we do that, we can make our kids questions God’s love, too. If our love is conditional when our kids have every right to expect it to be unconditional, then how can they trust that God’s love is unconditional?
Our kids should never have to question whether we love them. They should never have to question if God loves them.
Our words have power, and we need to use them well. We need to use them to let our kids know they are loved no matter what. We need to use them to make sure our kids never think their worth is based on their performance. We need to simply be careful and choose our words wisely. Because when we do, we teach our kids the true meaning of unconditional love.