A few weeks ago, I (Stephen) was having a conversation with one of my sons and Heather in the kitchen. We were going round and round, and the conversation was precariously teetering on the verge of a blowup. My son looked me square in the eye and said, “You only listen when you’re talking.” I turned to Heather and said, “Is that true?” She said, “Yeah, it’s kind of true,” and we had a big ole laugh about it. His comment still hurt. It still stung. But he was right.
When we have emotionally open and honest relationships with our children, we do a lot of truth telling, a lot of confronting, a lot of making up, a lot of seeking forgiveness, and a lot of laughing. The places they can’t laugh with us are the places where we need to grow and heal. There are some stories they know to skirt around. These are the places we have still not surrendered to God, the places about which we have said, “I don’t want you there because I don’t really trust the story God wrote.”
One way to identify your unfinished business is to ask yourself these five courageous questions:
1. What are my ten most painful or shameful life events? (And if you are over eighteen months old, then you have ten.) If you have never made that list, please do. Most people will pretty quickly write down two or three, and then they will get to four or five and will usually say to themselves, “That one didn’t hurt that bad.” They will judge themselves for putting something on the list. “I shouldn’t be putting that on the list. It’s not big enough. Or nobody needs to know.”
2. How did each of those events affect me?
3. What vows did I make about those events?
4. What have I had to do to maintain those vows? What are the behaviors I’ve continued?
5. What has this cost me? What does it cost others?
If you are ready to do the hard work of beginning to name your unfinished business, talk to yourself, to God, or to wise person or friend about your list. This can be a scary thing to do. If you take the risk, you can find that there are some wise-hearted people who are able to help unburden you if you ask—and God is faithful to be present through it all. You can’t fix what happened. You can’t undo it all. However, you can grieve it. You can accept it. You can name it.
You can put words to it. You can make amends for it. You can accept responsibility for how your actions have continued to echo in the lives of the ones you love. You can receive forgiveness. You can grow with others, stay in humility, and truly remain in need of God.
This is a great way to begin to deal with unfinished business so that you can show up with your children in life. And you will be able to join with your children when their lives take those same painful turns. Their lives are going to be tragic too. No matter what you do, no matter how good enough of a parent you are, something is going to happen to hurt them. But you can keep on walking forward with them, even when you are clumsy.
This is an excerpt from Parenting with Heart: How Imperfect Parents Can Raise Resilient, Loving, and Wise-Hearted Kids, by Stephen James and Chip Dodd
Stephen James, MA, LPC-MHSP, NCC, is the Executive Director of Sage Hill Counseling in Nashville, TN. He is also a best-selling author of five books, including Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. He is active in training other mental health professionals as well as to speaking to audiences around the country on the topics of living fully, servant leadership, family relationships, and spiritual authenticity.