are we parenting imaginary children?

loving kids unconditionallyI was living in make-believe land — at least in my own mind. 

Our local bookstore hosted a weekly toddler story time. I thought that all good mommies took their children to these kinds of things.

And I really wanted to be a good mommy.

So, off we went — me and my two-and-a-half-year-old Molly. Never mind that I had never personally witnessed Molly sit or stand still for more than two seconds at a time — at least not when it wasn’t naptime.

Yet somehow I convinced myself that the soothing voice of the storyteller would be so enchanting and captivating that she would sit with starry eyes and hands folded, lost in the fascinating, unfolding adventure.

It didn’t take long for that far-fetched fantasy to turn into a pumpkin.

While the other kids were wide-eyed and attentive, Molly was having none of it.

She spun and danced.

Fidgeted and squirmed.

Jumped and twirled.

I could feel the disapproving stares of mothers who sat nearby.

Trying to calm her was like attempting to put Jack back in the box while someone continued to turn the crank.

The whole experience ended with her running down the aisles of the bookstore with me (six months pregnant at the time) breathlessly waddling after her.

Molly is not a calm, sit-with-hands-folded kind of girl. She wasn’t at age two. She isn’t now at 16.

It took me a long time to figure out that I needed to parent real Molly. Not Make-Believe Molly. You know what I mean. I spent years trying to parent the fantasy child I thought she should be, or the child I wanted her to be. Or, even the child I thought others expected her to be.

I was guilty of the same mistake with her brother.

The results are no fairytale. It causes resentment to build — on both sides. It sends the message that we’re not just unhappy with their behavior. We’re disappointed or unsatisfied with who they are.

[Tweet “When I began to start parenting my real children, I let go of unrealistic expectations.”]

God made our children as He did with all their beautiful uniqueness. I’m so glad He didn’t give me the make-believe children I thought I wanted. The real children He gave me are so much more interesting, more amazing and more challenging to the rotten parts of myself.

We have to mold, guide and direct our children — their character and qualities. But I’ve been guilty of either subtly or directly trying to change the person they were created to be. I’ve parented imaginary children.

When I began to start parenting my real children, I let go of unrealistic expectations.

And I enjoyed my kids more.

When I began to start parenting my real children, I quit feeding my resentment.

And our relationship began to thrive.

When I began to start parenting my real children, I quit my continual nitpicking.

And my children’s sense of security and worth increased.

We aren’t guaranteed “happily ever afters.”

But we greatly increase our children’s contentment — and our own — when we stop living in make-believe.

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  • Don’t we all need a person in our lives who truly understands us?! If it’s not our parents then it will be someone else.. I much rather have it be me! As a mother of four I have learned that they are all their own different characters, and it helps me if I don’t try to label them. It’s called unconditional love and there’s a great book that always gives me a reminder of that — ‘I love you stinky face’. My daughter thinks it’s scary but my son loves it.

  • Melinda this post is just what I need it to hear today. I have two girls and they are both very shy.My younger one particularly is just not speaking to others unless she is ready and comfortable with them which can sometimes take a really long time.
    I often finding myself pushing her to speak to others hoping that she might 🙁 .
    I now I need to learn to accept it but is soo hard and Iam often wishing she would have better social skills but that is not who she is.

    • It’s so hard, Gabriela! Accepting who they are and learning to love them just as God made them can be a challenge when they are very different than we are or who we thought they would be.

      But it is so worth it. So much resentment builds in us and them when we don’t do that. I found my relationship with my daughter got SO much better when I quit trying to make her personality closer to something I was comfortable with.

  • I agree with the article but I am also confused. So is it ok for my daughter (3 years old) constantly grabbing toys from others? Biting others when she is irrated? Wanting to be naked everywhere she goes? I thought parenting is about correcting misbehaviors, and that is a very exhausting process. I would be very happy not to do anything about it if children can naturally grow out of it.

    • {Melinda} Hi, Jenny! I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear in my post … absolutely, no … I’m not at all talking about discipline issues. Biting, inappropriate behavior is never acceptable. I agree, I wouldn’t be so exhausted as a mom if I could just let it all go! 🙂

      Not my point at all. I had tried to communicate that with this part of the post:

      “We have to mold, guide and direct our children — their character and qualities. But I’ve been guilty of either subtly or directly trying to change the person they were created to be. I’ve parented imaginary children.”

      I’ve just tried to change their personality … make them fit into a box I was comfortable with. I’m talking about qualities that aren’t misbehavior or mean or wrong, just tendencies (like being VERY extroverted or extremely laid back) that made me uncomfortable because they were so different that what I expected and from my own personality. I’ve been guilty of trying to push them into activities/pursuits/behaviors that just didn’t match their personalities at all.

      We definitely have to discipline and shape their character … no question about that!

  • I’m in tears reading this because I feel like God is speaking directly to me through your words. I melted down to my husband two days ago because my 13 month old wouldn’t sit still for library story time. He, too, has NEVER sat still for more than 30 seconds for anything at home, but he didn’t meet my expectations and it was frustrating. I immediately felt guilty because I wanted him to be someone he isn’t. It’s tough letting go of all the dreams I had of what motherhood would look like, but my son is a greater blessing than anything I could have dreamed for myself. He is perfect the way he is, and I’m the one who needs a change in perspective. Thank you so much for this.

    • {Melinda} Oh, Sara, your son is so blessed that you’re making this realization while your son is so small. It took me years to figure this out! 🙂 It really does make all the difference when we begin to love and accept them as the unique little creations God made them. I’m so glad you stopped by!

  • This is so great! Do you have any recommendations of how to start implementing this? My 7 year old son is much like your then 2 1/2 daughter. He is very high energy, UBER sensitive, and has a hard time with patience, waiting his turn or anythingod the sort when it comes to less talking. He has so much to share. I love this about him yet it also drives some people crazy (myself included at times) and at school his kindergarten teacher says it’s an area that need I
    Prove meant (doing as he’s old when he is told). Ugh….

    • {Melinda} Hi, Rayanne! One of the things that I did with my son (who was also super talkative and energetic at that age) was to work with his teacher to try to find positive (not distracting) ways to channel that energy. For example, he’d get all his work done and then start bothering and trying to talk to the other kids. He loved to read, so I brought in a special set of books from home that he could read when he got done with his work. Or, the teacher would give him a worksheet or small task for him to do to help in the classroom. That worked with Micah’s personality because he loves reading and he loves task completion.

      I think it also helps to honor their personality, but set boundaries for it. (My daughter is SUPER social. I allow her to do things with her friends, but I have to constantly reign her in for her own good. She would burn herself out and not get her homework, responsibilities done).

      This is another article I wrote on this subject that you might find helpful too:

      I hope that’s helpful. I think it really is a process and one that is unique to each child, but I hope that gives you some inspiration and ideas!

  • I loved this post, it really spoke to my heart. I often have unrealistic expectations that get in the way of real parenting and true enjoyment of my children. It’s something I think many of us have to struggle with and learn to manage over time.

    • {Melinda} I so agree, Kira … I think unrealistic expectations just sucks the joy right out of motherhood!

  • Wow I just told my mom this about 3 hours ago! Amazing how God confirmed it by keeping me awake and allowing me to venture to pinterest which lead me here. I want to have loving relationships with my kids not resenting ones because of my imaginery expectations of them. Thanks!

    • {Melinda} This was such a hard lesson for me to learn, Regina! In fact, I’m still learning it. I can find myself slip back into parenting imaginary children if I’m not careful. And my oldest is 18! 😉

  • I love it!! Our kids need to be loved for who they are not who we think they should be. You really hit the nail on the head with this one (like you always do.)

  • Melinda, you have given me much to think about as I consider these important truths of parenting the children God has given me and not trying to change their personalities or gifts or having unrealistic expectations. Thank you for this important post. May God bless you!

    • {Melinda} Anna, I am so glad that this post inspired you. This was such a hard lesson for me to learn and implement — and I still struggle — but it has made a HUGE difference in my relationship with my kids! Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting!


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i’m melinda


I’m a woman who was radically changed when the God I thought I knew since childhood opened my eyes to the overwhelming depth of His love for me. I love speaking, writing, and pointing women to the Father so they can experience for themselves the healing power of His incredible, captivating love.

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