‘Mom? Why don’t you like me?’

I don’t remember what started the disagreement with my 11-year-old daughter. Maybe it was a late math assignment or a missing permission slip. But I’ll never forget the sorrow-filled way she looked up at me from her bedroom floor, tears streaming down her face, as she asked: “Mom? Why don’t you like me?”

(Just to be clear – I do like my daughter. I like her and I love her. I love her so much that some days it feels like the core of my body isn’t strong enough to hold inside me all the love I have for her and her brother and sister. Which is exactly what I told her that afternoon. But more on that later.)

Parenting is hard. And sometimes parenting one child is harder than parenting another child. And sometimes, life throws you a changeup pitch and switches the batting order around, am I right, moms? But I realized something important that day: When it comes to showing love to my older daughter, being her mom is hardest when I see behaviors in her that I don’t like in myself.

Lightbulb moment.

We are the first and best role models for our children. Everybody knows that. But it’s easy to forget – as we roll through our busy lives – that just as our children see us using good manners, caring for others and generally winning at life, they also see us at our worst. They hear the words we wish they didn’t. They witness us losing our patience with our spouses and our computers and those darn customer service representatives. And then they hear more bad words.

No one told me that having children was sometimes like putting a mirror up in front of your own face. No one told me that I would see myself in the dramatic way she sighs and rolls her eyes. No one told me I would hear my own words, bitter and sarcastic, coming out of her sweet little mouth. And, perhaps most importantly, no one told me that the only way to curtail these behaviors in my daughter was to cut them out of my repertoire first. That one I had to figure out by myself.

Getting back to that afternoon in her bedroom, I think I was able to salvage the situation. When I (somewhat calmly) asked her to elaborate, she said something like: “You are always so hard on me and so critical. Sometimes I feel like you don’t even like me.”

My answer, after a few calming breaths, was that I’m hard on her because I love her so very, very much. “If I didn’t really love you and genuinely care about helping you grow up to be a strong, successful person, I wouldn’t be critical at all. I’d just let you slide by, doing whatever the heck you wanted and not holding you accountable for anything. I wouldn’t care. Is that what you’d prefer?”

Of course she said no, and we were able to hug it out after that. But it was an amazing teaching moment. A gift, really, from her. I need to remember that these little sponges are soaking us all in – the good, the bad, the four-letter. And maybe instead of being so hard on my daughter, I can work on modeling a little more compassion for her. And maybe a tiny bit more for myself.

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