A few years ago, on a family vacation, I was strolling along and talking to my husband; our three kids lagged a few steps behind. I wasn’t looking where I was going and mid-sentence, I walked smack into a pole. Luckily, I wasn't hurt at all — except for a bruised ego. It was so embarrassing, especially since my whole family, along with a ton of people on the street, saw me do it. I did the only thing I could think of — I started laughing hysterically at my clumsy self. When my husband and kids saw me laughing, they joined in, and even days later, the five of us would erupt into spontaneous laughter when we thought about it.
The ability to laugh at myself is not something that came naturally to me. In fact, it’s a skill I’ve had to develop, especially when it came to parenthood.
When I first became a mother, I didn’t want to make any mistakes. Like many parents, I was hard on myself. Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Michigan says, “There is a high degree of expectation for parents nowadays. Historically, parents were expected to help their kids to survive from early childhood to adulthood with basic needs like food, shelter and some survival skills. Now, parents are expected to help their kids survive a myriad of real and perceived threats such as infection, genetic disease, vaccines, SIDS, bullying, predators, college admittance and the list goes on. Also, there is plenty of competing advice on what to do and what not to do.”
Laughing at yourself, and at the world around you, can help lower shame associated with not meeting these unrealistic expectations.
As my kids got older, I realized it was impossible to do everything right. As much as you may want to control everything, you just can’t. You can, however, control how you react when things go wrong, or when you mess up. I needed to embrace the comical side of parenting, for moments such as:
- breast milk leaking through my blouse at Thanksgiving dinner;
- baking cupcakes for my daughter’s class using rancid oil (thankfully, I realized this before serving them!);
- allowing my son to teach me how to do the “floss” dance when I have absolutely no rhythm.
The list goes on and on. My choice was to internally berate myself or learn to laugh at myself. My willingness to laugh at myself gives them permission to laugh, too — not at me, but with me. Krawiec says, “Laughing at yourself, and at the world around you, can help lower shame associated with not meeting these unrealistic expectations. Laughing helps us put aside how we think we may be seen by other people and helps us focus on how we see ourselves.”
The ability to see the humor in life is an excellent lesson for kids. Licensed marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind says, “Parents need to be able to laugh at themselves to let go and not take life too seriously. If a parent gets overwhelmed and anxious, their child will also take on this anxiety and [become] overwhelmed. If you can laugh at yourself as a parent, you and your child will be much better off!”
When you try to be a perfect parent, it not only puts pressure on you but on your kids. If you are hard on yourself all the time, your kids learn to react that way to themselves when they make mistakes or do something silly or embarrassing. But by making light of your small failures and injecting humor whenever possible, they learn to be more forgiving of themselves. Ziskind says, “Laughter can be a tool to get through tension and stress, so by modeling this behavior, you’re doing your child a world of good. By laughing, you’re teaching your child to stay positive.”
To this day, my kids bring up the pole incident or the rancid cupcake-capade, and we all crack up at these memories. Ziskind says, “Laughing with others has physical and emotional benefits. It releases endorphins and hormones like oxytocin that reduce stress and improve connection.”
It’s true — these shared laughs connect us as a family and remind my kids that mom’s not perfect and they don’t need to be either.