The Big, Mean Dad
by Mark Brandenburg MA, CPCC
It was a time each night that I cherish.
It was bedtime. I snuggled in behind my six-year-old son, to spend some time chatting before he went to sleep. As I pulled him closer to me, I could smell his sweet breath and his freshly washed hair. During these moments, I felt closer to my son than at any other time. It was a time to share thoughts and the experiences of the day. Bedtime was when Michael talked more openly, and this night was no exception.
“Dad, you’re so mean,” he said. “You’re always telling me not to do stuff, and you never tell Sarah. You like her better!”
I groped at the dagger in my heart. And as I did, I was aware of the two feelings I held simultaneously. The first one was guilt. I had lost my patience with Michael a couple of times during the day, and I had set boundaries that I needed to enforce. Had I been too strict with him? Could I have done it differently?
Is there heartbreak as great as the feeling you’re not being the father you could be?
The other feeling I experienced, welling up deep inside me, was anger. “How dare you question what I do, after all I’ve done for you?” Neither feeling was very helpful, so I tried a different direction. I calmed myself with a deep breath and plunged ahead. “What is it that makes you think I’m so mean?” I asked.
“You just are making me do stuff I don’t want all the time!” he said.
“I’m sorry you feel that it’s mean, Michael.”
There was a pause, and he muttered something else. I saw my opportunity. “You know, Michael, what you really ought to be concerned about is the spiders in your bed.” As I said this, I ran my fingers up his legs and back. He howled in laughter. A few moments later, he was chatting about what he was doing in school.
The “dark side” of our evening was over.
It’s likely that your kids will regularly harbor angry feelings toward you. They’ll bring you face to face with guilt, shame, and anger from an earlier phase of your life. What can you do with these feelings?
The first thing to do with them is to take comfort in the fact that you’re probably doing a good job as a parent. Show me a child who never complains about his parents being mean, and I’ll show you a child who’s parented by a saint or spoiled rotten. It’s an important part of your job to be “firm” (mean) with your kids. After all, you live in a country where over two billion dollars each year is spent advertising to kids. There’s more to say “no” to as a parent than ever before! And if you can combine this firmness with love and compassion, you have a great formula for parenting success.
Here are some other ideas on how to handle your child’s message that you’re “mean.”
• Ask them specifically what they mean when they say you’re being “mean” or unfair. Listen to their response closely.
• Tell them you’re sorry they think it was mean. Don’t apologize for any of the things that happened earlier in the day—apologize at the time of the incident. If you apologize twice, this will only help your child feel like a victim.
• Be aware that you’ll have some feelings of guilt or anger. Realize that these won’t be useful, and don’t beat yourself up about your mistakes.
• Give up the myth that you’ll be a perfect parent. Kids don’t need perfect parents, just parents that try to get better.
Michael rolled over and kissed me softly on the cheek. “I love you, Dad.” he said.
I wondered what he’d have done if I’d been nice to him?
Mark Brandenburg MA, CPCC, coaches busy parents by phone to balance their life and improve their family relationships. For a FREE twenty minute sample session by phone; ebooks, courses, articles, and a FREE newsletter, go to
. or email him at
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