Parental Mistakes: Known and Unknown

Dawn Davenport


I’ve been thinking about forgiveness lately. Not the smug, slightly self- sanctifying forgiveness where I am working on forgiving someone for a wrong done to me. No, that’s the easy or at least a more comfortable type of forgiveness. I’m stuck thinking about the shame and regret-filled kind of forgiveness—forgiveness where I’m on the receiving end. For me, it’s far easier to think about being the forgiver rather than the forgiven.

What sparked these thoughts was the recurring popularity of a blog I wrote, which was inspired by the national public radio show This American Life episode titled “Switched at Birth.” You will need to read that previous blog to understand the story, but the Crib Note version is that two baby girls (Marti Miller and Sue McDonald) were switched at a hospital in the mid-1950s. One mother, Mrs. Miller, suspected immediately that she had the wrong baby, but for numerous reasons, she said nothing until 40 years later. Every good story needs a villain, and the show put the black hat squarely on Rev. and Mrs. Miller’s head.

This must be a popular segment for TAL because they’ve rerun it several times since I originally posted that blog. The first time it re-aired, the youngest Miller daughter commented on my blog, giving additional information that had been left out of the radio show. Her version was much kinder to her mother. The last time it was on the radio, one of the switched babies herself—Marti, the one raised by Mrs. Miller– commented. She provided even more missing information, but what struck me most in her comments was her understanding and forgiveness of her mother.

One mother, Mrs. Miller, suspected immediately that she had the wrong baby, but for numerous reasons, she said nothing until 40 years later.

I don’t think anyone ever begins parenting thinking they are going to need to be on the receiving end of their children’s forgiveness one day. I certainly know I didn’t. I started this whole parenting endeavor planning on being as close to perfect as possible. Being a good mother was the most essential thing in my life. It still is; I’m just less sure about how to do it.

In my years of parenting, I’ve made my share of mistakes. Blowing up at a child who provided the spark, but had nothing to do with the build-up of emotional fuel. Trying to do too much and succeeding at doing a poor job of everything. Giving only half my attention, accusing when I should have had faith, putting off their questions until “I had more time.” These are the mistakes I see. What worries me are the mistakes hidden from me, like the “mistake” Mrs. Miller made. She never set out to harm anyone and likely didn’t even realize that it might have been handled better until years later.

I still stand by this Parenting Tip.

A friend once told me about a conversation with her teen son. They were talking about being scared, and she asked him what scared him. He said nothing would ever compare to fear he felt when his sister went missing. He vividly recalled first his and then his mother’s search, the anxious phone calls, the growing worry, and his terror. Ultimately his sister was found safe, but the event left its mark and remained the worst day of his life.

My friend remembered none of it.

My friend is not some inattentive flake or parent too caught up with her work or life to notice her children. Quite the opposite. She was a stay at home mom, totally invested in her kids. She can only guess that she wasn’t all that worried about her daughter’s whereabouts, but missed that her son was. How, she wondered, could she miss something so big? Completely unaware, she left her son to deal with his terror alone.

Last week at dinner, my family was talking about childhood misconceptions. Son #2 said that when he was little, he really believed that summer camps were a place where parents sent their kids to get rid of them — kind of like boarding school for life. He recalled the gut-wrenching fear he felt the week before he went to a five-day church camp the summer he was 11. He said he walked around the house that week saying good-bye to everything and everyone and crying himself to sleep.

He recalled the gut-wrenching fear he felt the week before he went to a five-day church camp the summer he was 11. …I knew nothing.

I knew nothing.

Oh, I knew he was reticent to go, but this child is hesitant about all things new. His older siblings had loved this camp, and I’m sure I was full of my cheery talk about all the fun things he would get to do. I tucked him into bed each night but somehow missed that he was truly afraid.

I was so sure when I began parenting that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes my parents had made. True enough, I avoided some of their errors but succeeded in creating my own. One night a girlfriend and I were engaged in the time-honored girlfriend tradition of complaining about our mothers when I realized that our children would someday be sitting around a table complaining about us. It was a disconcerting feeling. She and I quickly agreed that it couldn’t possibly happen since they would have nothing to say.

What I know is that each and every one of us screws up with our kids. Some of these mistakes we know about, some we don’t. It is impossible to parent without giving our children cause to forgive us. I apologize for the mistakes I know about, and try my best to model forgiveness because I know someday I will need to be on the receiving end. I can only hope my kids will be as understanding and forgiving of me as Mrs. Miller’s daughters are of her.


Originally published in 2009; Updated in 2020
Image credit: mopics80, Angela de Marco, Hans Fransen 
Some images have been resized and cropped to fit our format

12/02/2020 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 15 Comments

15 Responses to Parental Mistakes: Known and Unknown

  1. Avatar Katie Naftzger says:

    It’s so complicated. I think we can be sorry for what we know now that we wish we could have known then. We may never see eye to eye with our child about a given situation. They may blame us for something that we believe served them well in the long run. I was in a group once with a mix of adoptees and adoptive parents (I’m an adoptee, therapist, etc.) Someone asked an adoptee about her birth parent, “So, you haven’t forgiven her yet?” Forgiveness doesn’t always seem like the goal. It’s acceptance.

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      That’s a great point, Katie — that there are often two different perspectives on the same event we experience with our child. Sometimes the most healing thing we can offer each other is the acknowledgment that there was pain involved and that for that, we are truly sorry. In the case you shared, I’d imagine that the concept of forgiveness has a wide definition and application.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your insight.

  2. Avatar Dawn says:

    I received the following comment from Esther, the youngest of the Miller siblings in the Switched at Birth episode. With her permission, I am posting it here.

    “It is hard for me to listen to the “Switched at Birth” This American Life episode because I feel it was so unfair to the Miller side of the family, compared to what was told about the McDonald side of the family. Once one lets something like this episode out on the air it seems to give others permission to criticize ones’ family openly, which I find mean-spirited, especially since they don’t know the whole story and since it was purposely skewed by the This American Life interviewers, writers, and/or producers. I do think that the girls (Marti and Sue) and all the siblings are much more forgiving of my mother.


  3. Avatar Dawn says:

    But I should add that I think Ladybug’s Mommy has a point. I hear fairly frequently parents apologizing for making difficult parenting decisions. “I’m sorry I’m making you go to bed” or “I’m sorry you have to give Timothy back that toy.” Maybe we do go overboard on the “I’m sorry’s” I don’t think we should apologize for being parents. Those decisions come with the job description.

  4. Avatar Dawn says:

    I totally agree with The Gang’s Mom and LBC. Apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean we are wrong. I told my son I was sorry that I didn’t realize how truly frightened he was. Now, I likely would have sent him to camp anyway, but I could have addressed his fears better if I had known. I have to wonder if I was busy or just inattentive during that particular week. Also, sometimes I am wrong. I wish I weren’t, but alas, I am. When that happens I don’t think I’m showing weakness to apologize.

  5. What's spurred your thought along these line?

  6. Avatar S. C. Miller says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that parents should apologize and that is not wimpy. I don’t really like the idea that I may screw up enough to need forgiveness, but I know that it is true. Keep on telling it like it is girlfriend!

  7. Avatar LBC says:

    Asking for forgiveness doesn’t always mean you did something wrong. I think it’s great that your friend has the kind of relationship with her son where he’s honest enough to tell her his fears. If I were in her situation, I’d feel sorry that I didn’t notice my son’s terror. If she apologized to him for that, it’s not saying she did anything wrong. As adults, we experience situations from a different perspective than our children.

  8. Excellent post Dawn! I, too, went into this parenting gig with the best of intentions and the highest of expectations. Of myself, of my soon-to-be perfect child, of my husband, and so on. REALLY set myself up for humbling. And quick. With each successive child, I’m learning more and more about myself that needs to grow and change and be “rooted out” of my character.

    I applaud you for sharing this side of parenting. While I don’t think we should ever apologize for holding our kids to high standards of excellence, moral purity, and good character development, I DO agree that we should be quick to apologize and seek to change when WE inevitably falter in one of those areas ourselves.

    I will never apologize for making my son go to bed at a decent hour, no matter how old he is. I likely won’t say I’m sorry for correcting disrespectful or rude behavior, even if/when it embarrasses them in front of their peers. I will never apologize to my daughter for requiring her to change out of an inappropriate outfit.

    However, I will apologize AND DO, when I lose it and over-react to a ridiculous situation. When I am convinced of my selfishness or inappropriate example of godly character in my dealings with my kids, I WILL and DO apologize. It’s imperative – for me and for my kids. I have a mandate on me to not just tell them how to live, how to grow, but to SHOW them. And to live in front of them in humility and repentance is yet another way in which I model how to be REAL and AUTHENTIC and focused on our family identity as Christians.

    My grandmother used to say that “More is caught than taught” and in this issue in my own life, I have found that to be true over and over.

  9. Avatar Ladybug's Mommy says:

    I think sometimes we should be more like our parents and forget all this asking for our kids forgiveness and apologizing. Sometimes I think we are too wimpy as parents. I’m not saying you are but really, so what if your friend didn’t react the same way as her son. She is an adult who fully understood the situation and knew there was nothing to be afraid of. And with your son, of course he was afraid to go to camp. Lots of kids are. You made him go because you wanted him to experience something good. You make him get shots or eat his vegetables for the same reason. You have no reason to apologize or be forgiven for being a parent.

    I have now listened to the show ‘Switched at Birth” and gone back and read both Esther’s and Marti Millers comments. I don’t think they need to forgive their mother either. She did the best she could in a bad situation, so what needs to be forgiven???

  10. Avatar Maddie's Parents says:

    Interesting blog that explores the areas of parenting that we are less than comfortable sharing. I followed your blog on the This American Life show on Switched at Birth. I too was impressed by both daughters, but especially Marti Miller. I had not thought about the fact that I or we would need forgiveness someday for something. I don’t like thinking that, but I see your point. I’m glad you are further down the parenting path than I am. I consider you a valued resource for how to proceed. I like the part you said about modeling forgiveness. Thanks for what you do. I LOVE your podcasts and videos!!

  11. Avatar Momma wanna be says:

    I have played the same sit around the table complaining about your parents ritual you describe. I think I’d better be a little more careful from now on. I’m finally pregnant after many years and now I’m not so sure about being critical. I have a feeling I will be making my own mistakes soon enough.

  12. Avatar randi says:

    In all my reading on parenting, I don’t think I’ve ever read about needing our children’s forgiveness. As I read about your friend, I’ll admit that my first reaction was that this could never happen to me. that I would be the kind of parent that wouldn’t miss something like this. Then it hit me that that was your point. We ALL think we are going to be that kind of parent, but we are all human and we will all screw up. We are all that kind of parent. What a mind blowing epiphany. I’m still processing, but I really appreciate this post. This may be one of your best.

  13. Avatar Natalie says:

    As usual, another heartfelt and home hitting blog. You are a joy to read, and I shudder to think about the things my daughters will have to forgive me for – I am clueless and feel like I need to re-invent what we do everyday.

    Love your blogs, so glad to be a subscriber, they enrich my life.

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