There’s a famous story in the Talmud in which a curious wanderer asks Rabbi Shammai to teach him the Torah on one foot. He wanted the sound bite, the bumper sticker summary of Jewish values and teachings. Shammai thought the guy was being sassy and chased him away with a stick.
Rabbi Hillel, however, took the traveler seriously and answered his question: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
My last book, “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids,” was about taming our inner Shammais. I have yet to meet a parent who can’t relate to the desire to chase our kids away with a stick from time to time.
My new book, “You Are Not a Sh*tty Parent,” is an exploration of Hillel’s teachings, but in the reverse: “That which is hateful to your neighbor, do not do to yourself.”
I’m talking about self-compassion, the antidote to the shame and blame that so many of us struggle with. Whether it’s the ketchup soup we fed the kids for dinner, the missed deadline for after-school sign-ups, or the rage- and exhaustion-fueled explosion, chances are you’ve thought of yourself as a shitty parent at some point. Shoot, if you’re like many parents I know, you might be thinking it so often you don’t even notice anymore, and that feels awful and makes everything harder.
I know from experience.
My early years of parenting were filled with judgment and contempt, and not from my fellow parents. I was constantly berating myself for all my mistakes and missteps, both real and perceived. I was certain I wasn’t feeding my girls well enough or starting them on team sports early enough or being patient enough when they wanted to spend 10 minutes exploring a crack in the sidewalk.
I thought I was a bad mother.
If you had asked me at the time, I would have told you that I knew perfection wasn’t an option. And I would have meant it. But I also believed that if I just read the right books, listened to the right podcasts, and worked hard enough, I would be a good mother. Someday.
Not only is that a load of BS, but it’s debilitating. No one can function well when they’re constantly thinking that way. I certainly couldn’t.
Thank goodness I found self-compassion.
Contrary to popular belief, self-compassion is not self-pity, self-indulgence, self-esteem, self-improvement, or letting yourself off the hook. Self-compassion is the most valuable tool in our parenting tool kit. It’s about noticing when we’re suffering and taking action, both in how we choose to think about whatever is going on and how we treat ourselves in response.
Self-compassion is the difference between believing you’re a crap parent because you have no idea how to get your kids off their tablets, and reminding yourself that managing screen time is challenging for all of us. The crap parent story leaves you feeling stuck and confused, whereas remembering that you’re not alone and that you don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a great one creates the headspace you need to figure out what you need and how to get it – whether it’s expert advice or a night away to get some sleep and clear your head.
“You Are Not a Shitty Parent” dives deep into four powerful practices of self-compassion — noticing, connection, curiosity and kindness — that counteract our deeply human tendencies toward isolation, judgment and contempt.
When we remember that life with kids is hard for everyone, a weight lifts off our shoulders. We no longer feel like failures; we feel like part of a mighty, if imperfect, team of humans working our butts off to raise the next generation of imperfect humans.
When we approach our environment and experience with curiosity rather than jumping straight to judgment, our parenting becomes more effective and empathic. When we slow down long enough to realize that we’re cranky because we missed lunch, and not because we’re inherently terrible people, we can get a sandwich instead of sinking into self-despair.
When we treat ourselves with kindness by recognizing our needs, taking them seriously, and responding in skillful ways, everything feels so much easier. I’m talking about giving yourself the benefit of the doubt instead of beating yourself up when your kid is the only one who shows up in regular clothes on pajama day.
No matter how bad things get, you always have a choice. You can continue to believe that not only do you suck, but you suck way worse than other parents, and you’re epically screwing up the most important work of your life. Or you can remember that we all make mistakes, get curious about what’s going on and what you need, and treat yourself with kindness.
Yeah. I vote for option B.
The practice of compassion helped me get space from the shitty parent thoughts that had plagued me for so long so I could see myself and my parenting clearly. I don’t always get it right, to be sure, but I know now that I am a good parent.
And you are too.
Compassion is the strategy that will help you move past the mental crap — the blame, shame, anxiety and regret — so you can embrace your inner reverse-Hillel and remember: That which is hateful to your neighbor, do not do unto yourself.